It goes without saying that exercise helps your brain stay sharp. Your brain is a muscle. Arguably, it is the most important muscle in your body. If you fail to use it—as they say—you risk losing it, so to speak.

Just as you go to a gym to keep your body in shape, you must participate in some sort of exercise to keep your brain in tip-top shape. The difference is that instead of trying to bulk up or create shape, with your brain your goal is to increase connections between the cells that make it up.

Thankfully, there is a way you can take care of your physical body and take care of your brain health at the same time. It’s called exercise.

Physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, provides so many benefits. Aerobic exercise has positive effects on brain function ranging from the molecular level to behavioral level. Even a few minutes of exercise can help with information processing and memory function.

Exercise increases the heart, which in turn pumps more oxygen to the brain. Exercise also helps the body to release hormones that assist and provide a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells.

Exercise stimulates brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to change, by stimulating the growth of new connections between cells in the cortical areas of your brain.

Looking at exercise and its benefits from a behavioral standpoint, the same antidepressant-like effects that you get from a good run lead to a drop in stress hormones. This promotes more cell growth in the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

When physical and brain exercises are done in conjunction, studies have shown that they raise your chances of increasing cognitive functions. Different kinds of exercise have different effects. An activity that’s strictly physical may not have the same benefits as one that involves a combination of physical and mental skills. For example, an activity like ballroom dancing that engages your mind and your body has a higher impact on cognitive function over a simple walk in the park.

How do you choose the right exercise for your mind and your body?

• For the most part, anything that is great for your heart is great for your brain.
• Aerobic exercise improves brain function and helps to repair damaged brain cells.
• Exercising in the morning, before school or work, spikes brain activity and prepares you for the mental stresses of the day and helps you to better retain information.
• Dance classes engage the body and the mind.
• Circuit workouts give your body and brain the most bang for your buck. A quick spike in your heart rate while constantly redirecting your attention offers the perfect combination of brain and body power.
• If you’re feeling burned out physically or mentally, don’t be afraid to change your routine—opt for a quick bike ride, a run around the block, or grab a jump rope and jump.

By Carolina Portes