If you wear headphones or watch TV while you exercise, you could be missing out on one of the most valuable benefits of working out: the opportunity to boost your brain health. That’s also true if you stick to the same fitness routine until you can perform it on autopilot.
New scientific evidence shows that physical fitness is the key to staying mentally sharp as you age—but it’s crucial to pay attention to what your body is doing, says Michael Gonzalez-Wallace, author of Super Body, Super Brain and MedHelp’s brain and body fitness expert.
“There’s lots of research showing that at any age, physical movement boosts brain health and memory, but to get the best cognitive results, you need to be mentally focused and engaged during your workout,” reports Gonzales-Wallace, who recommends exercises that use several muscles at once, requiring precision and coordination.
“Traditional exercises, such as biceps curls, are boring because you only use a very limited area of the brain, while more complex movements, such as simultaneously raising your left arm and right leg, activate many more brain areas—including those involved in learning, decision-making, timing and balance,” says Gonzales-Wallace, a NYC personal trainer and former pro basketball player.
Working out can have a dramatic impact at any age: A new study reports that the most physically active older people actually have larger brains—and the least shrinkage and damage to their white matter—than those who are least active. The study evaluated nearly 700 people born in 1936, using mental tests, brain MRIs, and questionnaires about leisure activities.
Surprisingly, the long-term study also found that purely intellectual activities, such as doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles or studying a foreign language, had no impact on brain health. Other research presented at the 2012 Alzheimer’s Association meeting found that regular exercise not only enhances the mental prowess of healthy people, but it even improves the memory of people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Try varying your workouts and adding some friendly competition to keep your brain stimulated, says Gonzalez-Wallace, who recommends MedHelp’s free Fit Friendzy Exercise Challenge App. It offers more than 100 fitness challenges, ranging from easy to insanely tough, and lets you track the results.
Solid science backs the following workouts as excellent ways to stay physically and mentally young:
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