Research has shown that a healthy diet and regular exercise can boost the brain’s cognitive ability, protect the brain from damage, and ward off mental orders. But how exactly does the food we eat and the physical activities we engage in contribute to our brain health?
Diet and the Brain
What we eat and how often we eat have a significant impact in the way our brain functions.
The quality of our diet
While poor diets can lead to a host of medical issues including obesity, cancer and mental disorders, a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can certainly provide many health benefits.
Found in salmon, walnuts and broccoli, omega-3 fatty acids support synaptic plasticity and have a positive effect on our learning and memory. Apart from enhancing our brain’s executive function, omega-3 fatty acids can also help the body fight against mental disorders such as depression and mood disorders, schizophrenia, and dementia.
In contrast to the healthy effects of diets that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, diets with high contents of trans fats and saturated fats adversely affect cognition.
The frequency of our meals
Many of us buy into the myth that consuming three meals a day with snacks in between is a healthy eating pattern. Unfortunately, this eating habit has been popularized by the retail and food industry in order to encourage consumers from buying more food and spending more money. What many do not know is that there is an underlying danger in this, as overfeeding can overexcite brain signals and impair the brain’s ability to functions. Apart from that, excess calories can also make our cells more prone to damage by causing the formation of free radicals in our body.
What scientific studies have shown nowadays is that meal skipping and intermittent caloric restriction are in fact actually good for the body. This is the reason why hospitalized patients are often subject to bland diets, caloric restrictions and fasts. Why? Fasting prompts your brain to respond to the challenge by adapting stress response pathways, which help your brain cope with stress and risk for diseases.
Here are some brain-healthy foods that you should incorporate in your diet:
Helps improve memory, protect synaptic function and potentially improve the outcomes in multiple sclerosis (MS), autism, and Parkinson’s disease
Improves cognition, maintains brain plasticity in adulthood and prevents Alzheimer’s disease. Also considered an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and folic acid.
Helps improve mood and slows down cognitive decline in older people.
Protects the brain against oxidative stress, improves memory and cognition, and prevents cognitive decline. Considered a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
A good source of choline, an essential building block in acetylcholine (a brain chemical), that helps improve memory.
Rich in fisetin, an antioxidant responsible for improving memory and is also known to improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Dark chocolate
Contains flavonoids known to improve cognitive performance in older adults and helps protect healthy adults against stroke.
Exercise and the Brain
Physical activity impacts the brain in a number of ways. Aside from increasing heart rate, which pumps more oxygen into the brain, it also aids the brain in producing different types of hormones responsible for regulating mood, decreasing stress, and enhancing the growth of brain cells.
When you engage in vigorous exercise regularly, your brain experiences a cognitive challenge similar to when you’re doing intermittent fasting. This stimulates the production of protein in the brain, which in turn promotes the growth of neurons, the connection between neurons, and the strength of synapses. Yet, not all exercises are made equal. You need to engage in high-impact exercise such as circuit training and cycling, as it is associated with an enhanced brain function during and after working out, compared to other low-impact exercises such as brisk walking and yoga. Once you’ve built a steady workout routine, you also need to gradually increase the intensity of your workouts to boost your mental returns.
Additionally, physical activities that require hand-eye coordination and quick decision-making have been found to have higher impact on cognitive functioning over simple exercise or mental tasks alone. It is best for you to engage in team sports or aerobic fitness workouts to integrate different parts of the brain responsible for coordination, rhythm, and strategy.
Duration and Frequency
While your brain can surely benefit from the effects of just one vigorous workout session, it takes at least half an hour of moderate physical activity three times a week to be able to yield results.
In truth, getting your heart rate up is more important than the number of times you work out weekly!
Here are some tips to maximize the benefit of physical activity for your brain:
- You don’t have to spend hours in the gym for an oxygen-happy brain. It is more important to find a workout that is considerably fun for you, so that you will feel more motivated to make a habit out of it.
- Best to exercise right before going to work. Getting your heart rate up early in the morning does not only improve your memory retention and decision-making abilities, it also helps prepare you for the mental stresses of the day.
- It is best to vary your workout once in a while. This helps stimulate your brain and gives it a new cognitive challenge. Best to combine high-intensity sports with yoga. You can even swap in your circuit workouts with a dance class occasionally.
- When it comes to physical activity, quality over quantity. It is better to aim for short but effective workouts rather than longer but low impact exercises. The former is more effective in spiking your heart rate.
In moments when we feel that stress is unavoidable and disease is beyond our control, remember that you have the power to choose what you eat and get active. At the end of the day, a good diet and regular exercise routine really do go a long way in keeping one’s brain and body healthy!