Why Cardio Is Good for the Brain

| Fitness

When you hear the word “cardio,” you probably associate it with the heart and lungs. You might also think, “Yeah, no, don’t put me down for cardio,” and avoid anything that could lead to sweaty panting. But cardio comes in all sizes, from walking to a sprint, step jacks to burpee pushups. No matter what level you’re practicing, your body is reaping the benefits. Cardio exercise can jumpstart your awareness, increase clarity and increase your brain’s overall performance. Suddenly, cardio sounds like a much smarter choice.

cardio stairs

Cardio exercise increases the demand of oxygen to your muscles, making the lungs work harder and the heart deliver more, faster. Blood pumps through the entire body, including up to the brain. The more blood flow, the better it works. This means the brain’s functions, like memory, decision-making, attention span and mental endurance all get a boost. Click here for ways to keep your mind on exercise while at work.

Clarity is something most adults struggle with due to fatigue and mental overload from the weekly grind. Instead of trying to break through the fog with a cup of coffee, try a brisk walk or taking the stairs to get juices flowing. To make this effect last longer, incorporate cardio exercise for up to 30 minutes at least three times a week.

Cardio workouts might have a shrinking effect on your thighs, but it will bulk up your hippocampus – the part of the brain that controls learning and memory. As people age, they develop an increased risk of developing dementia or diseases like Alzheimer’s. A recent study had older adults begin walking for 10 minutes, then 40 minutes by the end of a seven-week period, pushing the heart rate up a little more each time. The results showed a 2 percent increase in the size of the hippocampus, which is accompanied by improved memory. (via PNAS)

woman running

>> Read more: How to Prevent Alzheimer's and Dementia

While your lungs and heart pick up the pace during exercise, your muscles are busy sending hormone messages to the brain with every contraction. Once those hormones reach the brain, they react with a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. This genetic protein is responsible for regulating moods and stress. So, when it receives notice from the muscles, it triggers the brain to send out more hormones like seratonin, dopamine and the endorphins that create a “runner’s high.” BDNF gives the green light to make more brain cells, which means more space to take in more information. Like an employee who does just enough, the BDNF proteins need to be given work, otherwise they won’t do anything. Click here for 10 apps that will challenge your brain.

Despite the claim that cardio workouts make us feel like we’re “dying,” there’s actually research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showing it can reduce the risk of mortality. Even just five to 10 minutes a day of running (slower than 6 mph) makes a difference. It’s not just your cardiovascular system engaging during a walk or run, but your entire body. It’s one of the most efficient ways for your brain to fuel up so it can continue to steer your body into a healthy state. (via JACC)