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Sharper focus, smarter brain: Reaping the mental benefits of exercise

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Getting a good workout in the gym, going for a brisk walk, getting into zen mode doing yoga, all forms of exercise make you feel good physically and mentally. The effects of exercise on the brain go beyond making you feel happy. Moving your body can also help you do better on a test, comprehend a lecture and finish a puzzle. Benefits of exercise for brain health include helping you focus and improving your concentration levels. 

Exercise tops up your concentration brain chemical

Your brain chemical for attention, memory and concentration is acetylcholine. It is made from the nutrient choline, which must be regularly provided through the diet. Exercise uses choline from the diet to further maximise acetylcholine levels. Exercise benefits acetylcholine by [1]:

  • increasing its levels
  • prolonging its activity
  • protecting the brain cells that produce it. 

The most efficient form of choline is Alpha GPC which increases acetylcholine levels quickly and safely, compared to other forms of choline. It can freely enter the brain to increase acetylcholine levels in 1-3 hours. Read about the world’s first 99% Alpha GPC here.

It is a win-win situation, because Alpha GPC can also improve your muscle mass and resting heart rate. Read more here.

A 10 mins workout for a sharper brain

If you have an upcoming test in 30 mins, the best thing you can do to maximise your concentration levels is to engage in a 10-minutes intense exercise session. Short bursts of high intensity exercises followed by rest periods can improve your concentration levels. Adults performed a 10 mins-high intensity exercise session, after which they were tested on attention tasks and underwent brain scans. They performed better on the tasks post exercise and the brain areas involved in maintaining attention and preventing distraction were activated [3].

Increased brain blood flow increases attentiveness

Increasing blood flow to the brain increases attention and concentration [4]. Sitting for a long time decreases blood flow to the brain. This can easily be fixed by taking short walking breaks. Improved concentration is one of the best mental health benefits of walking. Desk job workers who took a 2 minutes-walk every 30 minutes of seated time had higher blood flow to the brain [5]. This way, you can reverse the low blood flow that occurs when you stay seated for a long time. 

Walking and cycling are great physical exercises for concentration.  This holds true for older adults as well. Those who cycled for 50 mins, 3 times a week, had an almost 30% increase in blood flow to the brain after 8 weeks [6]. These participants also had quicker responses on attention tests.

If you lead a busy lifestyle, even 20 mins of cycling can increase the blood flow to your brain by almost 20% [7].

Relaxing exercises to improve focus

On days that you prefer more relaxing exercises, yoga and Pilates are great options to increase concentration levels. Medical students who practised yoga for 30 mins, 5 days a week, had a 12% increase in concentration test scores [8]. Yoga increases the connectivity in different areas of the brain for improved focus [12]. Older women who practised 60 mins of Pilates improved their attention scores by almost 25% after 12 weeks [9].

The fitter you are, the better you concentrate

A review of 13 studies established that exercise durations of 10-60 minutes provide cognitive benefits [10]. These effects can last up to 2 hours. Over time, exercise provides the following benefits:

  • increases the size of brain areas involved in higher thinking skills like concentration. 
  • ensures regular blood flow to the brain
  • increases production of brain chemicals that improve attention.
  • increases production of new brain cells
  • improves connectivity between different brain areas.

References:

  1. Zong, B. et al. (2022). Understanding How Physical Exercise Improves Alzheimer's Disease: Cholinergic and Monoaminergic Systems. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 14:869507
  2. Conlay, L. A. et al. (1992). Exercise and neuromodulators: choline and acetylcholine in marathon runners. International journal of sports medicine13 Suppl 1, S141–S142.
  3. Kujach, S. et al. (2018). A transferable high-intensity intermittent exercise improves executive performance in association with dorsolateral prefrontal activation in young adults. NeuroImage169, 117–125.
  4. Leeuwis, A. E. et al. (2018). Cerebral Blood Flow and Cognitive Functioning in a Community-Based, Multi-Ethnic Cohort: The SABRE Study. Frontiers in aging neuroscience10, 279.
  5. Carter, S. E. et al. (2018). Regular walking breaks prevent the decline in cerebral blood flow associated with prolonged sitting. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985)125(3), 790–798.
  6. Kleinloog, J. P. D. et al. (2019). Aerobic Exercise Training Improves Cerebral Blood Flow and Executive Function: A Randomized, Controlled Cross-Over Trial in Sedentary Older Men. Frontiers in aging neuroscience11, 333.
  7. Steventon, J. J. et al. (2020). Hippocampal Blood Flow Is Increased After 20 min of Moderate-Intensity Exercise. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991)30(2), 525–533.
  8. Manik, K. et al. (2018). Role of yoga in attention, concentration, and memory of medical students. National Journal of Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology, [online] 8(9), p.1526.
  9. García-Garro, P.A. et al. (2020). Effectiveness of A Pilates Training Program on Cognitive and Functional Abilities in Postmenopausal Women. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, [online] 17(10), p.E3580.
  10. Blomstrand, P. et al. (2020). Effects of a Single Exercise Workout on Memory and Learning Functions in Young Adults – a Systematic Review. Translational Sports Medicine.
  11. Dupuy, O. et al. (2015). Higher levels of cardiovascular fitness are associated with better executive function and prefrontal oxygenation in younger and older women. Frontiers in human neuroscience9, 66.
  12. Ganpat, T. S. et al. (2013). Efficacy of yoga for mental performance in university students. Indian journal of psychiatry, 55(4), 349–352. h




 

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