Cognitive and Emotional

We are in our 40s, 50s, and 60s, one of our primary goals should be to build our cognitive reserves. The more neuropathways we have now, the more resilient our brain will be as we get older. The aging process will certainly take its toll and try to degrade our cognitive function, so the more that we can improve it during early- and mid-life, the better off we will be later in life. It’s like setting up a huge savings account that we can continue to draw from for a long time before it’s depleted. How do we do that? Well, first off, any form of exercise is good for the brain. The brain is an organ that needs adequate blood supply, oxygen, nutrients, and hormones to function properly. In this way it is very similar to the heart. Not surprisingly, the risk factors for heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease are almost identical. In fact, they are so similar that you can conclude that “what is good for the heart is good for the brain.”

For instance, both the brain and the heart benefit from healthy eating, regular exercise, and not smoking. Cardiovascular exercises like walking, running, biking, and swimming are also good for the brain because they increase that important hormone, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which helps repair, protect, and encourage new growth of brain cells.

Resistance exercises, like weightlifting, are good for the brain because they release an important hormone called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), which helps cells reproduce and regenerate.

Together, these two hormones can increase the creation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis), facilitate the creation of new neural pathways (neurogenesis), and improve the creation of new potential neural connections (synaptogenesis).

Cognition, Emotions, and Exercise

The latest research findings tell us that some forms of exercise are better than others when it comes to improving brain functions. These include:

  • Playing Sports
  • Dance
  • Tai Chi
  • Coordination/Motor Control

These types of movement have been well documented for their ability to improve many aspects of cognition and overall brain health. When looking at different forms of exercise, it seems that the most effective ones combine physical movement with complex cognitive tasks.

This is why sports are so effective. You must constantly plan your movements, use strategy, scan the environment, react to other players, make split-second decisions, move your body in complex ways, and manage your emotions. Sports, therefore, are very stimulating to the brain. However, many of us won’t be playing team sports on a regular basis. We may also not be taking dance classes or participating in tai chi (although you should consider taking up one or all of these).

This leads to the question – how do we best stimulate the brain? We do this by incorporating neuromuscular and cognitive/emotional challenges into our regular training program.

Brain Benefits

So, what should you expect in return for a little sweat around the brow? Two primary areas can be positively impacted with exercise training.

Sharper Memory

Memory, especially short-term memory, can be enhanced with exercise. Most notably, improvements have been seen in both the storage and retrieval of specific memories. This doesn’t mean that you will never have a “senior moment” and forget where you placed your keys or parked your car, but it does mean that overall short-term memory should improve.

On a cellular level, you’re promoting brain growth (especially in the hippocampus area that is associated with memory), preserving existing brain cells, and activating other cells to convert into new neurons.1 Good results for committing to a workout.

The brain’s executive function capabilities are the part of the brain that ensures you reach your final goal.2 It helps us select, plan, decide, and organize. It also helps us connect our past experiences with the present. Some neuroscientists further divide this into organizational and regulatory functions. Organizational functions include things like attentional control, problem solving, planning, and abstract thinking. Regulatory functions include things like self-control, initiation of action, inhibitory control, and decision making. Exercise has been found to help individuals maintain these high-order mental skills.

Improvement in Executive Function

As we said before, the benefits of exercise go beyond physical endurance and strength to include brain function. These gains are likely to have a significant impact on your quality of life as you age! There are other important pieces to the puzzle that will help you to continue to do the things you need to do, want to do, and love to do for as long as possible.

  1. Gretchen Reynolds, “How Exercise May Help the Memory Grow Stronger”, New York Times, February 21, 2018,
  2. “Executive Function of the Brain: Key to Organizing, Managing Time and More,” American Psychiatric Association, January 19, 2017,