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Exercise to make your brain more 'plastic'

October 29, 2014

By now, you know the importance of staying cognitively engaged for your mental health. Socializing, reading and playing mentally stimulating games can all have positive effects on your brain function. However, remaining physically active can also provide mental benefits. Improving your memory can be as simple as participating in one session of cardio. According to new research from the University of Adelaide, just 30 minutes of aerobic activity causes the brain to become more "plastic."

"Plasticity in the brain is important for learning, memory and motor skill coordination," said Michael Ridding, research leader and associate professor at UA. "The more 'plastic' the brain becomes, the more it's able to reorganize itself, modifying the number and strength of connections between nerve cells and different brain areas."

About the study
Researchers studied a small group of healthy individuals in their 20s and 30s. Immediately following 30 minutes of activity on an exercise bike, participants' brains were monitored to detect changes. They were monitored a second time, 15 minutes later. Scientists found positive alterations in brain function that remained even after 15 minutes of inactivity. This reinforces the idea that exercise produces long-lasting positive effects on memory and cognitive health.

How to reap the memory benefits of exercise
While the study was performed on younger adults, scientists believe the positive effects can be seen on a wide range of people, including those with cognitive issues.

"We know that plasticity is also important for recovery from brain damage, so this opens up potential therapeutic avenues for patients," said Ridding.

Whether or not you receive memory care, most people can benefit from participating in activities that strengthen their mental health. When engaging in cardio exercises, it's important to pace yourself and do it properly to avoid any injuries. Take these tips from Spark People, an online resource for those who want to lead a healthier lifestyle:

  • Stretch appropriately. Always dedicate the first and last 10 minutes of your workout to stretching your muscles and preparing your body for physical activity. Gently pull each arm across your body to feel a slight strain, and do the same for each of your legs. Don't forget about your back and your neck, as they're common trouble spots and can leave you in a great deal of pain if either get injured during your workout. 
  • Warm up and cool down. Just as stretching prepares your muscles for activity, warming up prepares your heart for exercise. Do a light jog or a few jumping jacks to get your heart pumping. After your exercise, try performing this same activity to gradually lower your heart rate back to its resting position.
  • Know your body. Even those in good health can overdo it sometimes. Look for warning signs that you're pushing yourself too hard during a workout. Things like joint pain, dizziness and chest pain are all clear indicators that you should stop what you're doing immediately before you injure yourself. Inactivity and certain medications can make exercising especially challenging, so gradually ease into a new workout plan and pay close attention to how your body responds to it.
  • Do what works for you. Some people prefer shorter episodes of higher intensity exercise, while others enjoy a longer, more laid​ back session. Try riding a bike, going for a walk or run, participating in a group dance class or slowing it down with yoga. Whatever you choose, just make sure you run it by your doctor first. He or she may be able to recommend a better plan of action that's more in line with your lifestyle and health conditions.