How daily exercise can fuel stronger minds
We’ve all heard this before—exercising regularly is good for your health. It helps you feel physically fit and strong, protect from and decrease the length of cold/flu-like symptoms, and uplift your mood. But have you heard about how exercise can boost your brain power? Indeed, a study from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) by Dr. Keith Neuchterlein and his colleagues showed that daily aerobic exercise and cognitive training can increase cognitive performance in a group of research participants with psychotic symptoms over time.
In particular, they compared two groups: people who received cognitive training and had to do daily exercise; and people with cognitive training only. After ten weeks of following both groups and measuring their performance on cognitive tasks, the group who did both cognitive training and daily exercise (e.g., lunges, squats, push-ups) showed significant improvements in their functional abilities (e.g., independent living skills, role functioning), and cognitive performance (e.g., working memory, social cognition, processing speed, attention) compared to the group who only received cognitive training. By itself, the pilot study did not find that cognitive training showed improved cognition, however, the authors expected that with a bigger sample, there would be some gains for the cognitive training only group (but comparably less than the cognitive training and exercise group). Naturally, the group who did both cognitive training and daily exercise for ten weeks also showed better physical fitness and health status than the group who only did cognitive training.
What is Cognitive Training?
Cognitive training is just another fancy term to say “brain exercise.” It is based on the idea that our brains are malleable and able to form new connections and improve its functioning with some mental workout. Cognitive training has been used by mental health specialists to help various populations, such as individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, stroke, learning difficulties, and psychosis. When individuals with psychosis describe their symptoms, they often discuss feeling more slowed down in their thinking, increased difficulty in organizing their thoughts and expressing themselves clearly. In addition, psychosis symptoms can also get in the way of social functioning, such as having a tough time understanding social situations, and recognizing facial expressions that tell us how others feel. Several studies on individuals with psychosis have shown promising outcomes on cognitive training and improving attention, verbal memory, problem-solving, as well as social cognition.
Social brains lead to healthier & happier brains
One particular aspect of the UCLA study that is important to highlight is the underlying effect of being in the aerobic exercise group. Participants in the cognitive training and daily exercise group were asked to come into the clinic regularly during the 10-week study, which allowed for some peer interactions and competition for the most points (based on effort, meeting target heart rate, weekly goal completion, and in-home exercise). It is quite likely that this group created increased social opportunities for some members. The authors also reported that there was a high participant attendance rate for the overall group (>90%) and the exercise group (95%), and that the exercise group found the in-clinic exercise sessions as a “normal, non-stigmatizing, [and] low-risk activity.” This shows that behaviorally-active intervention programs such as an exercise group can be helpful for individuals with psychosis and that it can be modified to be accessible to their comfort level.
So do I have to exercise or do cognitive training daily to find any benefit?
No. However, it is recommended that if you are looking for the best odds of increasing your brain strength and improving your cognitive abilities, doing brain stimulating activities and working out regularly (i.e., at least four days a week, for at least 30 mins/day) would be the key. The UCLA study highlighted that there are definite benefits to learning and exercising at the same time because it strengthens the brain network. Physical exercise and cognitive training both help generate more brain connectivity and strengthen the brain network connections made.
But what if I have trouble getting started with exercise/don’t feel like going outside/have no energy?
Always start with what you have and where you are. Determine what type of workout works best for you and how you may be able to accomplish it. In the study, the cognitive training and exercise group did not use any work out equipment and were done indoors during warmer days (>85˚F). And if you have trouble getting started, it’s best to seek support from someone you know and trust and ask for assistance. You can also ask your clinician to help you incorporate exercise as part of your treatment plan. Together, you and your clinician can figure out the best way for you to improve your brain and physical health.
To begin, consider setting a specific time of the day to commit to your regimen. Mark it on your calendar and set reminders for yourself! You can start your workouts once or twice a week for 30 minutes. If you find that this is possible to do, see if you can increase the frequency per week or workout period over time. Track your daily progress to see where you started, your improvements, and to keep yourself motivated.
You don’t have to join a fancy fitness club or get exercise equipment to become active. For instance, there are some aerobic/fitness video games available on most video game consoles. Running around your neighborhood or a nearby park is a good option if the weather permits. Take your dog out for an afternoon stroll or hike. Always wanted to learn that cool dance routine on YouTube but never got around to it? Now’s your chance! Play it on loop either on a computer or any other electronic device handy and learn the steps. Don’t like aerobics/running/dancing? Try playing basketball, football, or other sports games with your parents or siblings.
Finally, you are also more likely to continue being engaged in routine exercise when you are with others. So find a buddy (or a sister or any other helpful volunteer) and motivate each other to get active and stay healthy together.