Get Smart! Put Your Heart and Legs Into Your Brain

By Marilynn Preston

January 22, 2019 5 min read

I hate to start off in such a negative way, but I'm positive it's essential to your well-being: If you don't make a special effort to take care of your brain, your brain may stop taking care of you.

Alzheimer's disease is on the rise and now considered the third-leading cause of death in America. One-third of all seniors will develop it, and it's not just older people who are suffering from alarming cognitive decline. Younger people are also showing unexpected signs of brain dysfunction including memory loss, an inability to focus and a tendency to prefer violent video games over a quiet walk in the woods.

No doubt you've heard (from me, for instance) about many ways to wake up, juice up and help you rewire for a happier, healthier brain. Learn a new language, get eight hours of sleep, swear off processed foods, meditate daily ... and the magical elixir that I champion above all, enjoy exercise.

There's overwhelming evidence of the importance of physical activity when it comes to protecting, maintaining and improving the health of your brain, which is what makes you you.

Indulge me briefly as I summarize just one factor among many: Exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5, and that triggers the flow of BDNF — brain-derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF has a huge impact on brain rejuvenation. It preserves the brain cells you already have, and it promotes neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons, especially in the hippocampus, the precious area of your brain associated with memory.

Don't worry. None of this is on your final exam. But before I lose you to glazed-eye syndrome, I want to tell you about two evidence-backed ways to boost brain health that you probably haven't heard much about — yet. Even if you decide not to pursue them, you've goosed up your brain health a bit just by learning something new. Win-win.

— LEG STRENGTH IS LINKED TO BRAIN HEALTH. All exercise is good for the brain. Physical activity increases cerebral blood flow, reduces brain-damaging plaques and works to promote brain health at a cellular level. But it turns out that strong legs are super important for brain function, especially as we grow older.

According to a 10-year British study reported in the journal Gerontology, leg strength was a better predictor of brain health than any other lifestyle factor they researched.

So! How are you going to build your leg strength? Walking helps, but focused, functional leg strengthening should be calling to you, too — leg extension machines in a gym, lunges at home, whatever you decide. My favorite way to build leg strength is through yoga postures. If it becomes yours, too, your brain will last longer and be stronger than you can imagine.

— EFFORTFUL LEARNING. The newest twist in brain training — research led by Sarah McEwen, Ph.D., at the Pacific Brain Health Center — involves combining physical exercise with mental exercises, done at the same time. It's called "effortful learning" or "dual tasking" — linking a cognitive task to a physical task — and McEwen and her colleagues feel this kind of training is crucial if people want to protect themselves from Alzheimer's and dementia.

For instance, a brain health coach — and I believe every home should have one — will ask a client to work out math problems while doing bench presses, or recite poetry while riding a stationary bike.

"I am going to say a sequence of four numbers," brain trainer Ryan Glatt tells his clients, "and I want you to step on those numbers in the reverse order I say them with your right foot."

What? Yes, it's a challenge, and that's just the point of effortful learning, because when the brain and the heart are challenged simultaneously, the brain's overall brain function improves.

That's not true of playing brain game apps. Surprise.

"A brain game app makes you better at playing the game but doesn't improve overall brain functions," reports Dr. Cody Sipe in the January Fitness Journal. "Exercise, by contrast, affects multiple domains of cognitive ability — especially when we do effortful activities that challenge the brain and the body simultaneously."

Please chew on this while reciting the alphabet from Z to A.

ENERGY EXPRESS-O! SHE WAS A SMARTIE

"Do not call for black power or for green power. Call for brain power." — Barbara Jordan

Marilynn Preston is the author of "Energy Express," America's longest-running healthy lifestyle column. Her new Amazon best-seller "All Is Well: The Art {and Science} of Personal Well-Being" is available now on Amazon and elsewhere. Visit Creators Publishing at creators.com/books/all-is-well to learn more. For more on personal well-being, visit www.MarilynnPreston.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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