The #1 Lifestyle Change to Improve Your Brain

running sunrise sunset

Written by: Wendy A. Suzuki Ph.D.Professor of Neural Science and Psychology, New York University.

Doctors often recommend a long list of lifestyle changes to help protect your brain from the damaging effects of aging, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A model described at the most recent Alzheimer’s Conference in London in 2017, identified nine lifestyle changes that could help prevent one in three cases of Alzheimer’s Disease. That’s truly impressive, but how could we hope to tackle so many life changes all at once? Should I start that Mediterranean diet today? Or should I try to get 8 hours of sleep in tonight? Should I finally learn how to meditate to decrease my stress? We clearly need a better strategy and as a neuroscientist who has studied the brain and the effects of exercise on the brain for over 25 years (think of me as your exercise doctor), I suggest to start with the single lifestyle change that packs the strongest punch: adding more aerobic exercise into your life.

Exercise is the single most transformative lifestyle change you can make for your brain because it’s the only one that can produce brand new brain cells in the part of your brain that’s important for forming new memories, called the hippocampus. None of the other lifestyle changes (e.g., diet, sleep stress reduction, education etc.) do this. New brain cells are important because the more brain cells you produce as an adult, the better your brain is able to fight off diseases that come at you in older age, including dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise is also the only lifestyle change where you can feel the effects immediately after a single session. One session of exercise can improve your mood, improve your focus, and improve your reaction time, (particularly useful for navigating busy streets), during the minutes and hours after that exercise session. This is why I call exercise the grand slam of lifestyle changes that immediately starts working to protect and strengthen your brain from the damage and disease that can come with aging.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The single most common question I get asked is: What kind of exercise is best for my brain? Answer: The best kind of exercise for your brain is aerobic exercise which means exercise that increases your heart rate. The next most common question that I get asked is how much exercise should I do? I have a two-part answer for that.

Part 1: If you are not a regular exerciser, the good news is that just one power walk once a week can start you on your path to a stronger brain.

Part 2: For those who have started to exercise, a good rule of thumb is at least three aerobic workouts a week (30 to 45 minutes).

But it’s one thing to know that exercise is really good for your brain and another to actually start exercising or increasing your level of exercise. It’s so important to remember that exercise does not have to mean going to the gym in your best spandex. The key is to make it fun, practical, and integrated into your life. Here are my top five suggestions to quickly and easily get more aerobic exercise into your life today by just tweaking activities that you are already doing:

  1. Do some rock-inspired cardio vacuuming a la Mrs.  Doubtfire.
  2. Walk up the stairs (any stairs) once a day.
  3. Have a pillow fight with whoever is home.
  4. Include a powerwalk into your next errand.
  5. Dance around in your living room like no is watching.