Can we eat and exercise our way to better brain health? Research suggests that yes, our lifestyle choices influence how our minds function.
Food for thought: How nutrition protects the brain
Health experts often talk about the link between nutrition and well-being, but you don’t need a doctorate to know that food can affect your energy, mood and behaviour. You are what you eat, as the saying goes, and that applies to the brain as well as the body.
What might be news to you, however, is that certain foods can actually protect your brain. That’s the subject of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power, a book published in 2018 by Dr. Lisa Mosconi, Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Dr. Mosconi and other scientists have found that we can nourish our brains and reduce our risk of dementia by eating certain foods and avoiding others:
- Choose: fruit (especially berries), vegetables (especially dark, leafy greens), legumes, fatty fish (salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel), nuts, seeds, whole grains, olive oil, flaxseed, water
- Avoid: refined sugar (including sugary drinks); fatty, fried, deep-fried and processed foods (high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat); alcohol
Is it worth the effort to change your diet? Dr. Eva Selhub, a contributor to Harvard Health Blog, says that the brain is like an expensive car, and foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are like premium fuel. If you fill your car with lower-quality fuel (refined and processed foods), you risk poor performance and damage over time (inflammation, oxidative stress and worsening of mood disorder symptoms).
Health Canada updated Canada’s Food Guide in 2019, and its recommendations reflect current research: have plenty of vegetables and fruits; choose whole-grain foods; limit foods high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat; and make water your drink of choice. Instead of emphasizing meat and dairy, the guide recommends eating “protein foods,” including eggs, tofu and beans. Follow these guidelines and you’ll likely notice gradual differences in how you think and feel.
Smart moves: How exercise benefits the brain
Exercise strengthens our muscles, and you probably know that it also reduces our risk of diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. Now there’s growing evidence that exercise is also highly beneficial for our minds.
Regular exercise can improve our cognitive health. Aerobic or cardio exercise (such as cycling, running or swimming) increases the amount of blood and oxygen that reach the brain, which helps the brain stay healthier, grow blood vessels and synapses, and even increase in size. Aerobic exercise also enlarges the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps with learning and verbal memory.
A study released in 2018 found that aerobic exercise improved cognitive skills in older adults who had cognitive impairment (problems with thinking, memory and decision-making). The ones who benefited most also followed a diet that promoted healthy blood pressure. Exercising can also improve sleep quality, improve our mood and relieve stress, which contribute to better cognition and overall well-being.
How much exercise should you aim for? The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults (age 18 to 64) and older adults (age 65 and up) “should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.”
If you’re new to exercise or haven’t worked out in a while, start slowly and gradually increase the time and intensity. For added motivation, exercise with a friend, join a team or take part in group fitness classes. Whatever you do, keep moving!