By Eddie Phillips, MD
Hi. I’m Dr. Eddie Phillips. I’m a physician specializing in lifestyle medicine and board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
We all want to stay mentally sharp, but what’s the best way to do that?
I explain to my patients that exercise is the key to staying sharp. Even mild activity boosts blood flow to your brain. That means oxygen is getting to your brain to keep those neural networks humming.
In addition, exercise also boosts mental performance by improving sleep quality and reducing insomnia. Learning, memory and your ability to solve puzzles are all enhanced by a good night’s rest.
In a systematic review of research on this subject, exercise training was shown to improve sleep quality in middle-aged and older adults. Moreover, a Mayo Clinic review confirmed that exercise significantly reduces the risk of problems with thinking, memory and even dementia as a person ages. Yes, exercise should be included as a prescription for protecting brain health.
Studies have shown less age-related shrinkage of brain tissue in physically fit participants ages 55 to 79. People age 55 to 80 who exercise regularly also have sharper attention, organization and planning functions—these are called “executive control” functions.
Do you know that physical activity may even stimulate the growth of brain cells? This regeneration—or plasticity, as neurologists call it—may help the nervous system combat some effects of aging or conditions like stroke that may injure the brain.
Finally, regular exercise helps prevent or reduce other health problems that may harm the brain. These include:
High blood pressure and elevated lipids that contribute to artery-clogging atherosclerosis that reduces the flow of oxygen to brain cells.
Diabetes, which can compromise memory.
And transient ischemic attacks—or “mini-strokes”—when blood flow to the brain is briefly interrupted, as well as full-fledged strokes that can destroy swaths of brain cells.
So, if you want to be mentally sharp and keep your brain health up to par, be sure to exercise regularly. You’ll be doing your brain and the rest of your body a big favor.
Workout Workbook: 9 Complete Workouts to Help You Get Fit and Healthy. Harvard Health Publications, Gardiner J., Prouty J., Bean, J. (2014). Harvard Medical School Special Health Reports.