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Published on June 05, 2020

Exercise for Mental & Physical Health

Woman doing a crossword puzzle

Whether you want to lose weight, build muscle strength, or tone your shape, you typically go about it with exercise.

After all, it’s proven that engaging in certain kinds of physical activities can change the way your body looks and works.

There is growing evidence that the same principle applies to your brain.

The mechanisms are not fully understood. However, physical activity releases endorphins and nerve growth factors.

These are biochemicals that may have far-reaching effects on the brain environment, possibly even spurring neurogenesis, according to Theodore R. Brown, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with EvergreenHealth.

Neurogenesis – the process of generating new neurons – is essential in the brain development in early life. It continues throughout life and may have a role in preserving cognitive ability.

In addition to creating new neurons, exercise may help preserve existing nerve cells that are under stress, slowing the rate of brain shrinkage and loss of important cognitive functions, like memory and attention. Dr. Brown says.

Link between exercise and cognitive diseases

Physical exercise and fitness may also decrease the risk of certain diseases associated with declining mental function.

“There have been multiple studies showing a direct correlation between exercise and a person’s risk for certain diseases with cognitive decline or memory impairments,” he explains.

For example, according to Dr. Brown:

  • An Archives of Neurology study showed that participants in the 90th percentile of muscle strength preserved cognitive function at a much higher rate than those in the lowest 10th percentile muscle strength group — with the latter at a significantly greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Higher exercise levels can reduce dementia risk by 30 to 40 percent compared with low activity levels.
  • A study in the United Kingdom evaluated several hundred 70-year-olds and found that higher levels of physical activity were associated with larger brain volume.

“We don’t know if exercise is the key factor or whether people who exercise also do something else at higher rates that is the real mechanism,” he explains. “At any rate, it seems clear that exercise is good for your mind, as well as your body.”

Just get moving

The type of physical activity you do to improve your mental capacity isn’t as important as your decision to simply get moving.

In fact, Dr. Brown believes the best exercise regimen is one that combines various types of physical training.

“When you use cross training and involve multiple elements, your brain gets a better workout,” he says.

He recommends pairing activities like strength training and walking, yoga and the treadmill, or swimming and pickleball (racquet sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis) — or any other combination of physical activity that’s interesting, challenging, and, most importantly, fun.

Mental calisthenics

You can also tone your brain with mental exercises. Before you begin any mental calisthenics, Dr. Brown recommends prioritizing the mental function you feel needs the most improvement. Then find an activity related to that function.

There are four key areas of mental function:

  • Memory
  • Concentration/Attention
  • Speed
  • Reasoning

Below are some ideas to sharpen your mental skills in each of these areas:


  • Play a computer-based memory game.
  • Take a guided tour of a museum and write down everything you remember when you get home.


  • Read a book or listen to audio books
  • Play a long game, such as chess or bridge.


  • Play (from the couch!) a more fast-paced game like Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune.
  • Take a class or anything that requires study and homework. Try speed-reading. Your comprehension of material often goes up when you learn to speed-read.


  • Do a crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or another brain teaser.
  • Do a jigsaw puzzle of no fewer than 500 pieces.

Tag-team your health through fitness

To stay healthy, it’s clear that exercising for mental and physical fitness should be part of every adult’s wellness plan.

Although the exercise you choose may change with age, one thing is certain: we can never quit and expect to remain healthy.

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