Getty Images/Blend Images RM
En español | You walk to strengthen your bones, swim to improve your heart and do yoga to become more flexible. But a growing body of research shows these popular exercise activities do more than that, boosting the brain as well as the body. "Most of us have experienced the acute benefits of exercise, like how we think better after a quick walk after lunch," explains Teresa Liu-Ambrose, director of the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "The benefits of exercise are truly multidimensional."
The studies show that different types of physical training activate specific parts of your brain, enhancing different cognitive functions. So if you want to optimize your brain's health, you need to diversify your routine. Here's what you need to do:
Boost your memory
Aerobics or resistance training
When it comes to keeping your memory sharp, both aerobic workouts and resistance training pay off. Liu-Ambrose compared the effects in a six-month trial, with one group of participants taking brisk walks while another lifted weights for an hour twice a week.
The result? Both groups improved their spatial memory — "remembering things in space, like remembering where you put the ketchup bottle in the fridge," she says. Those who took walks also saw improvements in episodic memory, the ability to recall an event or episode in your life. And people who lifted weights saw greater gains in their associative memory — remembering two things that are related to each other, such as recalling a person's name when they approach on the street. (A stretching group saw no memory gains.)
It's not clear just how these forms of fitness improve memory, but Liu-Ambrose says "neuroimaging studies showed that areas of the brain that support these functions are activated more with exercise." Aerobic exercise also resulted in gains in volume in the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in memory formation.
Improve focus and concentration
When University of Illinois researchers pitted people who did a 20-minute session of yoga against others who walked or jogged on a treadmill, the yoga group was speedier and more accurate on tests of information recall and mental flexibility (the ability to shift from one thought or action to another) than they had been before the intervention. "It seemed to have improved the focus, attention and concentration of participants," says study author Neha Gothe, assistant professor in kinesiology, health and sport studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.
How? "With yoga, you are in-the-moment, often guided by the instructor to focus on a particular movement, on breath, or on your mind," Gothe says. "The meditative exercises aim to help you focus and be aware within the moment by trying to keep distracting thoughts away." Yoga's mental exercises seem to affect the way people think outside of yoga practice.
Tame your appetite
High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
In a recent study from the University of Western Australia in Perth, high-intensity interval training — brief bursts of exercise followed by short rest periods — was put to the test in overweight inactive men over a 12-week period. Compared with men who were assigned to continuous moderate workouts, those doing high-intensity training not only ate less right after their workouts, but improved their regulation of appetite overall. Study researcher Kym Guelfi chalks up the effects to reduced concentrations of the hunger hormone ghrelin after a HIIT session, though other factors may be at play.
Spark your creativity
In experiments at Stanford University, people who took a leisurely walk outside or on a treadmill indoors came up with more unique uses for ordinary objects than those who simply sat. It didn't matter whether the walk happened inside or outside. "The effect was quite large, even reaching 60 percent increase in one study," says Daniel Schwartz, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the study's coauthor. "Interestingly, the benefits also lasted, so that people showed a creativity residue shortly after walking."
How walking inspires creative thought is a mystery. "It may provide just the right level of distraction that it frees up the mind's natural filters that can block unusual ideas," Schwartz says.
Brisk walks or cycling
Moderate exercise may reduce cravings for cigarettes or sweets, according to a series of experiments from the University of Exeter in the UK. Researchers showed that taking a brisk 15-minute walk slashed chocolate intake nearly in half among a group of chocolate lovers. And in other studies from the university, moderate cycling curbed the intensity of cigarette cravings in smokers, says investigator Marcela Haasova, a research fellow at the university. Significantly, regions of the brain associated with addiction were less activated in smokers who exercised.
Improve your working memory
Balance and coordination exercises
If you want to improve your working memory — the ability to recall information long enough to solve a problem or perform a task — head to the playground or gym. Researchers at the University of North Florida put people through the paces of dynamic exercises, such as walking on a balance beam, navigating around objects, climbing poles, and carrying awkwardly weighted objects, then tested the cognitive effects. Their findings? Participants' working memory shot up 50 percent. Such a workout forces people to adapt to different environmental and terrain changes, thus challenging — and strengthening — their working memory, speculates study coauthor Tracy Alloway, associate psychology professor at the university. One way to get in on the action: Find a MovNat workout, which includes the same types of moves.
VIDEO: Building Muscle With Braganza. Ramona Braganza shows five strength exercises to get a total body workout.