I am a huge believer in the power of exercise — for the body, and even more importantly for the mind.
As I have written about before, I never go into a big day without running first thing in the morning. I have found that morning exercise makes me mentally sharper throughout the day, and I am convinced that my morning running routine has changed my life and career more than any other habit.
After reading The Real Happy Pill: Power Up Your Brain by Moving Your Body, I know that science has undoubtedly proven the dramatic benefits of exercise on the brain.
In the book, author Anders Hansen, a physician and psychiatry specialist from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, cites the latest neuroscientific research to clearly show that exercise:
- Increases focus and concentration
- Boosts creativity
- Alleviates stress and anxiety
- Improves mood and happiness
- Strengthens memory
- Slows the brain’s aging process
The amazing thing is that the cognitive benefits of exercise can be felt with as little as a 30-minute walk per day. In fact, Hansen notes that walking is the best medicine for dementia and a daily walk could reduce the risk of dementia by 40%.
A daily walk is the minimum amount of physical activity needed to see good results, but in the book Hansen also lays out the most beneficial activity level for the brain overall (to experience the full range of benefits listed above).
He says the very best you can do for your brain is to run for 45 minutes, at least three times per week. It is essential to raise your heart rate during exercise sessions, and he advises to focus on aerobic training over weightlifting to achieve maximum results for the brain. He says it is very important to stick with your training routine — people who exercise regularly a few times a week for six months will experience the most positive changes.
While that gives a great general framework to build your exercise routine around, Hansen also provides some concrete exercise tips to produce each type of cognitive benefit, including:
Best Exercise Routine for Improved Mood and Happiness
- Go for a 30–40 minute run, three times per week
- Hit at least 70% of your max intensity — you can keep a consistent pace throughout, but make sure you break a sweat and feel winded at the end of the workout
- Biking, swimming, or any other type of cardio can substitute for running as long as the intensity level and workout duration stay the same
- It is essential to keep this up for at least three weeks to experience the full benefits
- If you suffer from depression, you must run (or similar exercise) three times per week, 45 minutes each time. It usually takes about six weeks to notice the changes
Best Exercise Routine for Stress and Anxiety Relief
- Choose cardio over weight training
- Exercise for 30–45 minutes, at least 2–3 times per week
- You must elevate your heart rate during training sessions
- Reach the point of fatigue/exhaustion once a week (e.g. via interval training)
Best Exercise Routine for Increased Concentration
- Go for a run instead of a walk, ideally for 30 minutes
- Your heart rate should hit 70–75% of its max capacity (130–140 beats per minute if you’re 40 years old, at least 125 bpm if you are 50)
- Exercise in the morning to experience the peak concentration benefits during your work day (the effect will drop off after a few hours, and most of us need to focus during the day vs. at night)
Best Exercise Routine for Enhanced Creativity
- Run for at least 20–30 minutes (or similar vigorous exercise). A walk is good as well, but will not be as effective as running
- The creativity boost will be felt for about two hours after exercise
- Do not go all out — creativity will actually go down in the hours after a very intense/strenuous workout
Best Exercise Routine for Improved Memory
- Alternate between cardio exercise and weight training (weight training does seem to improve associative memory, e.g. matching a name with a face)
- If you need to choose between cardio and weights, cardio should take the priority since it is more beneficial for memory
- Don’t exercise to exhaustion — a walk or a light jog is sufficient
- Memory improvement takes place over several months, so it is important to keep at it
Best Exercise Routine to Halt the Brain’s Aging Process
- Walk for 30 minutes every day, at least five days a week (or run/bike/swim for 20 minutes, three times a week, which produces similar results)
- A daily walk is far more important than a daily crossword puzzle
Best Exercise Routine for Children and Teenagers
- It is best for children to be active for at least 30 minutes, at least a few times per week. Keeping this up for 2–3 months leads to permanent benefits including better arithmetic ability, increased creativity, and improved executive functioning (planning, concentration, impulse control, etc.)
- Kids should do whatever they enjoy (running, playing, tennis, soccer, etc.), but it is essential that they elevate the heart rate during exercise, ideally getting up to around 150 bpm
All of this shows that you don’t need to be an ultra-marathoner or jump on to the latest fitness craze — in fact, it is best to stick with the exercise basics to reap the maximum mental benefits.
Ultimately, you should do what you enjoy since that will make it easier to stick with it over the long haul. And doing something is far better than nothing. Hansen points out that the brain registers every step — so while 30 minutes of physical activity is better than five minutes, five minutes of moving still counts for the brain.
So do your brain a favor by moving your body.
As Hansen says, “Modern neuroscience has shown that maybe the most important thing we can do for our brain — and therefore ourselves — is to be physically active.”
And it takes less than an hour per day.