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Have you given your brain a workout today? Not by doing a crossword puzzle or playing a computer "brain game." Actual body-moving exercise, like karate or weight training, is turning out to be one of the best health moves you can make as you get older, to benefit your brain as much as your heart and abs.
The most physically active people show the least brain shrinkage and brain damage by their 70s, according to a study of almost 700 adults, reported in a recent issue of Neurology. Socializing, playing intellectually stimulating games, and learning a new language didn't give this protective effect.
Different types of activity may benefit different aspects of brain function, like memory or other thinking skills. That's why, for maximum brain health, you want to aim for a mix of moves, from aerobic to resistance to flexibility and balance.
Try: Simple stretching to boost attention
In study reported in Health Psychology in 2012, 68 sedentary men and women, ages 40 to 56, were randomly assigned to a cycling training program or a stretching and coordination program. After six months of working out twice a week, both groups showed significant improvement in memory tests compared to a third group that remained sedentary.
The people who'd been doing regular stretching exercises improved their selective attention. This shows that, while aerobic exercise provides plenty of health benefits, any kind of movement plays a helpful role.
Try: Interval training to improve thinking skills
High-intensity interval training involves alternating between short periods of a highly aerobic activity (like cycling) and a slower-paced activity (like walking). After four months of such training twice a week, overweight middle-aged adults were shown to have a broad range of brain benefits, including performing better on cognitive tests involving decision-making, memory, and other thinking skills. Their bodies were better able to deliver oxygen to the brain.
The director of the 2012 study, the Montreal Heart Institute's Anil Nigam, says anyone can try high-intensity interval training by, for example, running or sprinting for 30 seconds then walking or jogging for 30 seconds. Bonus: The subjects lost 5.5 percent of body mass and lowered their cholesterol, too.
Try: Brisk walking to multiply brain connections
Just 30 minutes a day of brisk walking gave older women the cognitive health of women five to seven years younger, found a study of 2,809 subjects who were already at risk for heart disease. That's important, say researchers at Harvard School of Public Health, given the links between blood vessel health and the cognitive impairment that predates Alzheimer's.
Other research has shown that even walking at your own pace boosts brain connectivity, because many different aspects of the brain are involved.
Try: Weight training for attention and memory
It's never too late to start working with weights. For six months, a group of women ages 70 to 80 were assigned to one of three different exercises, twice a week: resistance training, aerobic training (walking), and balance and toning exercises. The weightlifters did far better than the other two groups on tests of attention and memory. (The other kinds of exercises were also beneficial, but in different ways, such as improving balance or cardiovascular capacity.)
Try: Tai chi to expand brain volume and thinking skills
Tai chi, a gentle mind-body workout based on an ancient martial art, may not get the heart pumping, but it has been shown to grow brain volume in older participants. Researchers at the University of South Florida and Shanghai's Fudan University measured brain volume in adults without dementia before and after they did eight months of tai chi. Shrinking brain volume is linked to dementia, but in the tai chi group, brain volume expanded.
One theory: Tai chi requires concentration and learning a specific sequence of poses, making the brain work hard. To learn more about tai chi see 6 Creative Ways to Get Moving.
One more thing: If you're worried about your memory, see Worried About Your Memory? 5 Signs It's Serious.