The benefit of exercise for good health is not in dispute. But when it comes to brain health, should we be going for the leotard or the Lycra?
The effect of exercise on the brain provides a multitude of benefits from elevating mood, to improving memory, attention and learning. Exercise primes our brain for best performance. In addition to boosting oxygen and nutrient flow to the brain, exercise stimulates the release of neurochemicals such as BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) necessary for good neuronal function, and neurogenesis, the production of new neurons. It stimulates the release of serotonin and dopamine, our 'feel-good' chemicals essential to feeling happy and rewarded, and even helps reduce the brain shrinkage that normally occurs with age.
Studies in rats provided with enriched environments reveal the one element that makes the biggest difference to how well those rodents perform isn't their super yummy rat chow or the toys they have to play with; it is having access to a running wheel.
It appears that running, for both rodents and humans alike, is brilliant for improving brain function. Kids who are encouraged to run around the school oval before sitting a test have been shown to score higher marks, do better overall in class and experience fewer behavioural problems. Grown ups think better after exercise too.
The magic lies in exercising before work so your brain is flushed with the oxygen, nutrients and neurochemicals required to enable you to work at your best. That's why going for an early gym session or jog is ideal.
Consistency is what matters. The CARDIA study in 2014 revealed how running in our twenties leads to improved verbal memory, psychomotor speed and cognitive function in mid-life. Exercise maintains better brain health across the lifespan.
Yoga currently enjoys a podium position in the cognitive health stakes.
Now very much in-vogue, devotees espouse how good it makes them feel, and how it takes them away from the hubbub of everyday life by focusing on the breath and inducing a more meditative state.
While studies into the cognitive health benefits of yoga and Pilates tend to be few, small and mostly in women, they reveal how yoga improves mood, reduces anxiety and depression and can assist women experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder by helping regulate the stress response.
Practicing Hatha yoga over an eight-week period has been shown to assist women in their sixties with improved working memory, mental flexibility and fluid intelligence -- the ability to solve problems, form concepts and identify patterns.
One recent small study compared the benefit of a single session of Hatha yoga to 20 minutes on a treadmill at 60-70 percent of maximum heart rate, in healthy female undergraduates. Here the yoga session produced significantly better results on cognition immediately afterwards. According to the lead author Gothe "following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout."
The best exercise for improving brain health is the one you commit to doing regularly and enjoy. Just as eating a wide range of foods is required to provide all the nutrients we need, participating in a variety of different forms of exercise is what boosts our thinking skills and keeps our brains in top working order.