Research is finding that as we age, exercise may be able to help keep our brains healthy. Three studies presented at the 2015 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference showed that regular exercise may play an important role in protecting your brain from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and may help improve brain function and symptoms such as depression or anxiety in those who have these conditions.
This is a particularly cool one. Neuroscientists used to believe the brain was the only organ incapable of growing new cells—which partly makes sense, since we need our brains to be relatively stable over time, to keep our memories intact and to keep us us. But in recent years, it’s become clear that the brain, too, can grow new neurons, in a process called neurogenesis. And what seems to spur the growth of new neurons, perhaps above other activities, is aerobic exercise. (Other things, like meditation and antidepressant medication, have also been shown to trigger brain new cell growth.) The area of the brain that seems most capable of growing new cells is the hippocampus, the seat of learning and memory. It's also the area that’s known to “shrink” in depression, and particularly in dementia—so the fact that we may have some control over its health is exciting.
Endorphins, amiright? The link between exercise and happiness has been well-studied, and the results are very positive (just like you’ll be after some gym time). One study from the University of Vermont found that just 20 minutes of exercise can boost your mood for 12 hours. Cardio and strength training can both give you a lift, and 30-60 minutes of exercise three to five days a week is optimal for mood benefits, according to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Challenge yourself with 2-2-2 push ups. If you feel comfortable with tricep push ups, you may want to try a variation on tricep pushups. The “2-2-2” push ups refer to 3 sets of 2 push ups using different hand placements: narrow, regular, and wide. The narrow push ups will work your tricep muscles and the wide push ups will work your chest muscles.
Although the cardiovascular effects of exercise are partly related to inflammation, they still deserve their own category. Exercise is one of the best-illustrated things we can do for our hearts, and this includes markers like blood pressure and cholesterol, in addition the physical structure of the heart itself, and blood vessel function. Studies have suggested that 30 minutes per day is good enough to keep the heart in shape, while others have suggested we do more than this to get a real effect. Some have found that light activity is even enough to help the heart, but not all research confirms this, so it’s a little hard to tell how low levels of activity affect heart health over the long term. Additionally, too much exercise has also been shown to be stressful to the heart. So all this is to say that there’s probably a sweet spot somewhere in the middle for optimal cardiovascular health.
The bent-over row exercise develops the biceps and posterior deltoids, and also strengthens the core. Stand up tall with a weight in each hand, palms facing your body and arms by your sides. Bend over from the waist, hinging from the hips, until you are at a 45-degree angle. Keep your back straight, bend your elbows to 90 degrees and drive your elbows back as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Contract your abdominals throughout the exercise to maintain stability in this position. Return to start and repeat 10 to 12 times or until fatigue sets in for two to three sets.
Kick your leg up as close to your elbow as you can and then lower it back down and place your foot back on the ground. Once your foot is back down, repeat the push up then kick the other leg out to the side toward your elbow. Keep your leg as straight as you can as you kick it out. Place your foot back and repeat the push up before repeating on the first side.
Stand with your feet placed shoulder width apart and arms extend straight to your sides, raised at shoulder height. Now, do 50 small circles with your hands by rotating them in the forward direction. Then switch to 50 small backward circles. The backward and forward arm movement tones all the muscles of the arms including the triceps, biceps, shoulders and back muscles as well.
Arm-strengthening exercises alone will not give you fat-free arms. Rather, you need to lose excess fatty layers surrounding muscles with cardio. Cardiovascular exercise burns off calories for weight-loss all over the body, including the arms. Schedule five 45- to 60-minute cardio sessions per week of activities that raise the heart rate such as jogging, running, hiking, biking, swimming or step aerobics. Work out at a moderate pace such that you are working up a sweat but can still carry on a light conversation to avoid burning out 10 minutes into your session.
This may be the most worthwhile reason for exercising there is. Studies have shown how people who exercise are at a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia like Alzheimer’s disease. And even for people who start exercising relatively late in life, brain volume can actually increase over time, as can scores on memory tests, compared to people who don’t exercise (their brains shrunk over time, which is normal part of aging).
Ever hit the hay after a long run or weight session at the gym? For some, a moderate workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia. Passos GS, Poyares D, Santana MG, D’Aurea CV, Youngstedt SD, Tufik S, de Mello MT. Department of Psychobiology, Universidade Federal de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Sleep Medicine. 2011 December;12(10):1018-27.. Moving around five to six hours before bedtime raises the body’s core temperature. When the body temp drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals the body that it’s time to sleep Effects of exercise on sleep. Youngstedt SD. Department of Exercise Science, Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA. Clinical Sports Medicine. 2005 April;24(2):355-65..
If you're ready to move on from classic Bulgarian split squats, Swan's amped-up variation gets your upper body in on the action for a true total-body exercise. "This combination move works your legs, butt, chest, back, arms, and core," she says. "And it not only hits all the major muscle groups—it also lets you work on balance." Give it a shot and you'll see why.