Move Your Body! How Exercise Nurtures Your Noggin

Move Your Body! How Exercise Nurtures Your Noggin

More than ever, science is recognising the importance of exercise and how movement (especially as we get older) can help maintain our brain health and cognitive function. For women, this is particularly important as our brain goes through hormonal changes through our lives, particularly during menopause and beyond.
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Ensuring that you are moving your body - whether that be through gentle exercise like yoga or something with a bit more oomph, like HIIT classes, exercise is in preserving mental sharpness, enhancing mood, and protecting against cognitive decline. Let's take a look at why:

What does science say about the link between our brain and exercise?

The relationship between exercise and brain health is rooted in complex physiological mechanisms. Physical activity promotes a process called neurogenesis, which is how new neurons are formed in the brain - particularly in the hippocampus which is the area in our brain for learning and memory. Exercise also enhances synaptic plasticity, the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken over time, which is essential for cognitive functions like problem-solving and emotional regulation.

That's not all, though. When we are physically active, blood flow increases to the brain, delivering more oxygen and nutrients that support neuronal health. It stimulates the release of growth factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which aids in the survival and growth of neurons. Additionally, exercise helps reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which can negatively impact brain function.

How do hormones affect our brain?

A big factor for women's brain health is hormones and understanding how fluctuations across our different life stages can significantly affect our brain health and cognitive function.

During menopause, declining levels of oestrogen (the hormone that has neuroprotective properties) can contribute to cognitive changes and a possible increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Oestrogen helps regulate neurotransmitters, supports synaptic function, and protects against oxidative damage. Its decline can lead to symptoms that we commonly associate with menopause too, such as memory lapses, difficulty concentrating, and mood disturbances.

It's important to know that engaging in regular physical activity during and after menopause can mitigate some of these effects. Exercise can help balance your hormones, improve your mood through the release of endorphins, and support your cognitive function by promoting the growth and development of nervous tissue (called neurogenesis) and synaptic plasticity to help with learning and reasoning. 

6 activities to try for your noggin

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise includes activities like walking, running, cycling, and swimming. These activities increase heart rate and enhance blood circulation, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can improve our memory, executive function, and processing speed and can help ease symptoms such as mood swings and sleep disturbances that often come hand in hand with menopause.

If you prefer lower-impact activities, try brisk walking or water aerobics, which are gentle on the joints while still providing a substantial workout.

Strength Training

Strength training, including activities like weightlifting, resistance band exercises, and body-weight workouts, isn't only beneficial for muscle and bone health (especially during and beyond menopause) but also for the brain. Research indicates that strength training can enhance cognitive function, particularly executive functions like planning, decision-making, and multitasking.

Strength training increases the production of growth factors that support neuronal health and improve brain plasticity. Importantly, it also helps reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can negatively affect the brain when elevated over long periods. Try to include strength training exercises at least two to three times per week for brain benefits. 

Yoga

Yoga is a fantastic holistic practice that benefits both the body and mind. Regular yoga practice has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance cognitive functions such as attention and memory. The meditative aspects of yoga can help calm your mind, reducing the impact of stress on the brain and boosting your overall mood. 

During menopause, many women find that yoga helps to alleviate symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances, promoting mental clarity and emotional balance, fostering a sense of well-being.

Dance

Dance is a joyful and engaging way to stay active while also challenging the brain. Try joining a local dance school to learn salsa, or ballroom - or just have a bop in your kitchen or on the dancefloor during a night out! When we learn new dance routines, it requires coordination, memory, and concentration, stimulating various cognitive functions and studies have found that dancing can improve spatial awareness, memory, and neuroplasticity.

Tai Chi

If you haven't tried Tai Chi before, this is a form of martial art that emphasises slow, deliberate movements, deep breathing, and mindfulness. This practice has been shown to improve cognitive function, reduce stress, and enhance overall well-being. Tai Chi promotes balance, flexibility, and strength and its meditative nature helps calm the mind, while the physical movements enhance body awareness and coordination. Why not look up a class near you today?

Mindfulness Meditation

Finally, while meditation isn't a particularly physical activity, mindful meditation involves focused attention and awareness, which can have profound effects on brain health. Regular meditation practice has been shown to increase gray matter density in areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, and emotional regulation. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety, which can negatively impact cognitive function.

Practicing meditation can enhance focus, improve sleep, and foster a greater sense of inner peace. Even just a few minutes of meditation each day can make a significant difference in mental clarity and overall well-being.

If you are concerned about your noggin or any symptoms you might be experiencing, always speak to your GP in the first instance for advice.