Corey Vanderwouw: Lifestyle medicine and brain fitness
Are you interested in maintaining or excelling with your memory and brain efficiency? Are you recovering from an illness or brain fog and wish to become sharper? Are you a determined individual dedicated to highest level intellectual performance? If so, you may wish to consider an evidence-based practice known as brain fitness.
People at all stages of life with all types of lifestyles can benefit from brain fitness activities. Lynn Steffes, PT, DPT, author of “Brainy Health and Lifestyle Medicine” teaches that brain fitness can emphasize a brain’s cognitive recovery, preservation and enhancement. A recovery focus includes things like healing from surgery, post concussion, chemotherapy and depression (individualized recommendations are best for these). A preservation focus includes those who want to maintain their status, like people who have memory issues or want to stop a decline in mental efficiency that may be related to aging. An enhancement focus includes anyone who wants to build or excel in their job or other intellectual capacity.
It is important to note that brain fitness can be affected by a whole Lifestyle Medicine approach. There are six aspects of health of which we can take control in order to improve our health and quality of life. The six aspects are highlighted by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine in their definition: “Lifestyle Medicine is the use of a whole food, plant-predominant dietary lifestyle, regular physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances and positive social connection as a primary therapeutic modality for treatment and reversal of chronic disease.” All six of these lifestyle components can affect brain fitness, but according to Lynn Steffes, PT, DPT, “Aerobic exercise is the only factor that improves all areas of executive brain function” which include “attention, concentration, speed of processing information, memory, learning, adaptability and problem solving.”
Aerobic exercises are higher-intensity activities like jogging, cycling, swimming and hiking which increase breathing and heart rate more than with lower-intensity activities. Through deeper and faster breathing larger amounts of oxygen enter the blood. A faster heart rate increases blood flow throughout the body and brain, and the amount of oxygen to the brain rises. Oxygen is not only essential for brain function; the brain is sensitive to the amount of oxygen which is available and can improve its efficacy of the executive brain functions mentioned earlier with greater oxygenation.
Aerobic exercise also fosters the development of new blood vessels in the brain and new brain cell generation which are vital to keep our brains in shape and our thinking tip top.
With consistent aerobic exercise research has also shown less brain blood vessel blockage and narrowing over time, and larger brain volume as opposed to brain shrinkage or atrophy due to aging. In addition to these compelling brain benefits, consistent aerobic exercise can also reduce blood pressure and stroke, improvement of stress and sleep, and reduced depression.
Most of the research studies regarding brain fitness have emphasized aerobic exercise. There is a smaller body of evidence that shows that less intense exercises like yoga, Tai Chi and weight lifting can also improve brain fitness. Though there is less evidence at this time, it is exciting that this research is emerging. For practical purposes, it is empowering that for individuals starting an exercise program at a less intense level can also reap brain fitness rewards.
Joyce Gomes-Osman, PhD, Health Blogger interprets the research to make the flowing generalized recommendations to those who are able, “Since aerobic exercise, resistance training, and mind-body (yoga, Tai Chi) exercises are all associated with evidence specifically supporting benefits for brain health, you should maintain a diverse practice using these exercises as the building blocks for your regimen.”
Another approach recommended specifically for brain fitness was born from a 2016 study from the University of Rome Foro Italico, Department of Movement, Human and Health Sciences, Rome Italy. They researchers considered that both physical exercise and mental challenges have the potential to maintain cognitive efficiency during aging. Their study suggests that the largest benefits for the brain are reaped when simultaneously performing mental tasks during physical exercise. They report that this approach amplifies the benefits. Lynn Steffes, PT, DPT, uses these techniques while directing her patients to combine walking on the treadmill while performing a mental task such as naming the days of the week in reverse order or other similar, novel mental challenges.
This is a fascinating area of research and clinical practice which gives us the gift of taking care of our precious and essential brains. Move Better, Live Better.
Corey Vanderwouw has been a physical therapist for 20 years. She co-owns Fit for Life physical therapy in Grass Valley with her partners Ingo Zirpins and Margaret Matthews.
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