We are all desperately searching for ways to improve our brain function — but it might be as simple as going for a walk around the block!
Recently, there have been a flood of products that promise to improve your brain function. Some of these products are brain puzzles designed to test cognitive functions like memory and processing speed, some are nutritional supplements, and others may be mindfulness strategies.
With an emerging health crisis related to dementias and a human desire to keep our brains functioning at their peak capacity, all of these suggestions seem incredibly important — but how do you choose which ones to work into your life?
Fitting everything that is recommended for brain health into your life verges on the impossible, so prioritizing the most effective strategies for maintaining brain health just makes sense.
Thankfully, one of the most effective strategies for keeping your brain healthy is also one of the easiest and cheapest — all you have to do is go for a walk!
(I am talking about walking specifically in this article, but the benefits that come from cardiovascular exercise in general provide nearly all of the same positive effects as walking. If you are unable to walk, look for another kind of physical activity that gets your heart rate up!)
How Does Physical Activity Help the Brain?
Walking has an incredible number of positive effects on your brain. Some of these effects are obvious immediately, but others may go unnoticed because they prevent a decline in brain function rather than causing an increase.
When you exercise your brain begins to produce endorphins (a type of chemical messenger) and a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).
The endorphins’ job is to keep your body from feeling stress, and they are the reason that many people say they get a “rush” from exercising. Thanks to the endorphins, after exercising your mental state will be clearer, you will feel happier, and you will be much more likely to exercise again in the future.
The BDNF, on the other hand, is a protein whose primary purpose is to protect and repair brain cells located in the memory centers of your brain (the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain). BDNF is also released when you exercise, and may be why you often find that you are able to better solve problems or complete cognitive tasks after a quick exercise session.
The brain boost you get from exercise is visible in almost everyone — from people who are incredibly healthy to individuals who have already been diagnosed with dementia.
Long-Term Brain Health
The “Brain Boost” is a great reason on its own to incorporate exercise into your day, but regular physical activity also benefits your long-term brain health.
By improving your cardiovascular health, you are preventing several health conditions that can interfere with your brain health, including: high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity.
All of these health conditions obviously have other implications for your physical health, but they also negatively impact how well your brain functions.
Exercise is a preventative action against all of these health conditions, and can also help to lessen their influence if you have already been diagnosed.
As time passes, staying free of other health complications is one of the best ways to guarantee that your brain will be able to function at its peak performance for as long as possible.
How Much Exercise Do I Have to Do?
It’s all well and good to say that all you have to do is exercise to keep your brain healthy, but sometimes exercising seems like one of the hardest things to fit into your day.
Thankfully, “exercise” in this context doesn’t mean running a marathon, taking specialized classes, or walking for hours on end.
Instead, exercise really just means getting your heart rate up for thirty minutes a day, at least ten minutes at a time.
The whole time you are exercising you should be able to hold a conversation without getting out of breath, and you should walk at a pace that feels comfortable for you. Getting these breaks in can be pretty easy – walk around the block once before breakfast or once after supper, play with your kids at the park, or walk on the spot while watching thirty minutes of your favorite TV show.
More exercise is always great for a number of reasons, but the basic health benefits are present and significant at thirty minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise every day.
How Can I Keep Myself Motivated to Stay Active?
It’s one thing to say that you are going to be more active in your daily life, and another to follow through on these plans.
Thankfully, there are some great apps and technologies that can help you to stay on-track with your walking goals.
Wearable Activity Trackers
Wearable activity trackers such as Fitbit, Jawbone, or Nike Fuelband have taken the world by storm.
These trackers are basically glorified pedometers — they track your steps throughout the day, send notifications about how close you are to your goal distance or time spent active, and measure the calories you’ve burned.
For many people watching the number of steps they’ve taken go up or setting a different step goal each week is enough of a motivator to encourage a change in their activity habits.
One thing to consider is that if you own an iPhone 5s or higher, or an Apple Watch, your iOS device may replace your need for a Fitbit. These iOS devices come with a built-in sensor that tracks your steps and stores them in Apple’s native Health app, without adding any additional cost!
You can either track your progress through the Health app, or download a third-party pedometer app that can access the data and display it in a more appealing way.
Human: One amazing third-party pedometer for iOS is the Human app, which is an all-day activity tracker that runs in the background of your phone and encourages users to move for “at least thirty minutes”. See at a glance how active you have been during the day, receive “nudges” when you have been sitting for too long, and receive encouraging messages when you reach your goals.
Download: Human for iOS (Free)
Moves: Another fantastic option for tracking your steps on an iOS device that goes far beyond just telling you a number. Moves tracks all of your activities throughout the day (including your location, the type of activity, and the duration of each activity) and places them on a visually appealing timeline so that you can quickly identify patterns in your daily activity levels.
Social Fitness Apps
For some people, just tracking numbers isn’t enough of a motivator to encourage true change in their daily fitness patterns.
There are a large number of social fitness apps available, where your fitness performance is visible for your social group (either your existing social group or a new fitness-based community) to see. Having others to keep you accountable and to encourage you along the way is a great way to maintain new active habits!
Some tried and true options for social fitness apps include My Fitness Pal and Map My Walk, but there are also some great apps that you might not be aware of!
Walk and Talk: Walk and Talk is a free app that randomly pairs you with another user with whom you can have a conversation — but only for as long as you keep moving! If the conversation flows, you may find that you end up staying active for longer than you thought you could!
Download: Walk and Talk for iOS
Active-Mate: If having a peer to go on walks with you is essential to keeping you motivated, consider using this free app! This app matches users with similar fitness styles who live close enough to work out together. This is a great way to meet likeminded people with similar activity goals who could quickly become new friends!
Charity Miles: Need even more motivation to head out the door? Use your walk as a way to donate to charity! Corporate sponsors have partnered with the Charity Miles app so that for every mile you walk 25c is donated to your preferred charity out of a selection offered by the app. You do have to post your activity on either Facebook or Twitter in order for your donation to go through — but all things considered it’s an incredibly small inconvenience for being able to give back to others while also improving your own brain health!
Maintaining Brain Health
Keeping your brain healthy is incredibly important.
While we can’t stop dementia in its tracks, recent studies have showed that we can slow the onset of symptoms significantly based on how we live our lives. Along with walking, take time to make other small alterations in your lifestyle — there many brain exercises that take five minutes or less!
Walking for thirty minutes a day has incredible health benefits for our bodies and minds, and can greatly improve our quality of life both now and in the future. Do you take the time to walk (or another form of exercise) every day? Is it something that you would consider?