Scientists don’t know exactly why exercise changes the structure and function of the brain, but it’s an area of active research. So far, they’ve found that exercise improves blood flow to the brain, feeding the growth of new blood vessels and even new brain cells, thanks to the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF triggers the growth of new neurons and helps repair and protect brain cells from degeneration. It may also help people focus, according to recent research.
For those sticklers who object to this regimen as a violation of the no-equipment stipulation—what are you, trapped in a shipping container?—Okafor has a go-to airport circuit, too, no chair required: four rounds of 20 squats, 20 lunges (with each leg), and 30 bicycle crunches. Maybe you're thinking: the airport? But don't people give you weird looks? "Of course," Okafor says. "But they're usually out of shape." Spoken like a man who isn't one bit afraid to curl a chair with a towel.
Maybe you exercise to tone your thighs, build your biceps, or flatten your belly. Or maybe you work out to ward off the big killers like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But how about sweating to improve your mind? "Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. "Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain." If you need a little extra incentive to lace up those sneakers, here are five ways that exercise can boost your brainpower.
Begin in a forearm plank position. Press the right hand into the floor and then the left hand, rising to a high-plank position. Rotate your body to the right and extend the left arm toward the sky for a side-plank variation, allowing the left leg to scissor over the top of the right, with the inner edge of the left foot and the outer edge of the right foot touching the floor. Return to plank position. Release the right forearm back down to the floor and then the left forearm to return to the starting position. Repeat the sequence, this time starting with the left hand and coming to a left side-plank position. Continue the movement pattern without pausing, alternating sides. Complete a total of 10 to 12 reps (five to six reps per side).
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).
Do triangle pushups. Triangle pushups will build your shoulder and chest muscles while helping you burn calories. On an exercise mat, get into the traditional pushup position with arms shoulder-width and extended to prop up your upper body. Move your hands inwards to create a triangle under your chest, with your index fingers meeting at the top and your thumbs closing the shape at the bottom. Lower yourself almost all the way to the ground, then push yourself back up.
Whether we’re fully conscious of it or not, we’re always looking for how to be happy. And exercise is one of the most obvious steps to take, as it’s not a coincidence that you feel better after a good workout: It’s science. A Penn State University study found that people who exercised, whether it was a mild, moderate or vigorous workout, had more pleasant feelings than those who didn’t. (1)
When stress isn't just stress, exercise can work wonders, too. There's a host of research proving that people with anxiety and depression can find major help in working out. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, regular exercise has been found to help with various anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and OCD. Celebrities, including Lena Dunham, have talked about about how a regular exercise program has helped with her anxiety.
Andra Picincu is a certified nutritionist and personal trainer with more than 10 years of experience. She holds a BA in Psychology and a BA in Marketing and International Business. Her mission is to help people live healthier lives by making smarter food choices and staying active. She owns ShapeYourEnergy, a popular health and fitness website. In 2014, she launched a local nutrition office and partnered up with local gyms to help their clients take the steps needed to better health. Current and former clients include The HOTH, Nutracelle, CLICK - The Coffee Lover's Protein Drink, InstaCuppa, GritWell, GoHarvey, and more. Andra is a regular contributor to these platforms where she either provides health-related content or coaching to those who are interested in achieving a balanced lifestyle.
Getting your workout in can also improve your sleep. In one study of 2,600 subjects, people who exercised at least 150 minutes a week reported a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality as well as better energy levels during the day, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And there's nothing more heavenly than a solid night of sleep (and nothing more rewarding after a tough workout during the day).
If you cannot hold the starting position, modify it by dropping to your knees, keeping your arms and shoulders straight. Keep your head in alignment with your back and lower your chest towards the floor. Your elbows should be tucked into your sides as you hover over your fingertips. It’s completely fine if you can only lower your body a few inches. The more often you do tricep push ups, the easier they become.
You're adding lean muscle. If you did a strength-training routine, your muscles are now starting to rebuild themselves and repair the microscopic tears that come with lifting weights, says Paul Gordon, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Physical Activity at the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor. Preliminary research shows that women respond to and recover from resistance training faster than men.
Emerging research suggests that it doesn’t take much movement to get the benefits. “We’ve been interested in the question of, How low can you go?” says Martin Gibala, an exercise physiologist at McMaster University in Ontario. He wanted to test how effective a 10-minute workout could be, compared to the typical 50-minute bout. The micro-workout he devised consists of three exhausting 20-second intervals of all-out, hard-as-you-can exercise, followed by brief recoveries. In a three-month study, he pitted the short workout against the standard one to see which was better. To his amazement, the workouts resulted in identical improvements in heart function and blood-sugar control, even though one workout was five times longer than the other. “If you’re willing and able to push hard, you can get away with surprisingly little exercise,” Gibala says. (For more on the 1-minute workout read this.)
HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your feet together and hold both arms straight in front of you, palms together. Jump your feet apart, push your hips back, bend your knees and lower into a squat while pulling your arms apart and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Shift your weight over your right leg, and then your left leg, then right and left again before returning back to center and standing back up. Gradually increase your speed and range of motion throughout the set.