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Fitness between your ears


PAY OFF After six weeks of 20 minutes of high-intensity exercise three times a week, adults aged 20-35 adults perform better in fitness and memory tests.

Exercise and diet play a greater role in brain health than many might think

Paul O'Brien

Spanish pathologist and Nobel Laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal once said, “Any man could, were he so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” Considered by many as the pioneer of modern neuroscience, Ramon y Caja showed that the brain is capable of continuous adaptation and growth throughout a human lifetime.
For most people, the importance of Cajal’s work and progress in the modern exciting field of cognitive neuroscience, still flies under the radar. That may be about to change.
Conditions of cognitive decline continue to rise in Ireland. Within a generation, dementia rates in Ireland may have increased three-fold, with most experts agreeing that we will see at least a doubling of the rate by 2040.

Brain boost
However, a flood of research tells us something crucial. We can affect our brain’s development throughout our lifespan by making conscious choices. A wholefood, local and organic diet is one of the best ways to start. Exercise also plays a crucial part at all stages of life.
One 2017 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience showed that adults aged 20 to 35 who performed just 20 minutes of high-intensity exercise increased the levels of a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), responsible for brain growth, function and survival. Participants performed better in fitness and memory tests after only six weeks of high-intensity bouts of exercises three times weekly.
Another 2017 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that adults aged 60 and over who walked more than 4,000 steps a day showed improved mental skills and attention. This is well below the recommended 10,000 steps for health recommended by the American Heart Association. Adults over 60 who performed less than 4,000 steps daily had thinner brain structures and lower levels of cognitive function.
A third 2017 study, available in the journal ‘Neuroimage’, looked at eight- to eleven-year-old children, and it showed that participating in aerobic exercise (walking, cycling, dancing etc) and simple agility drills using basic equipment and games improved the level of grey matter in the children’s brains. Exercise improved performance in areas of the brain involved with executive function, learning and motor processes, language processing and reading.
The age spread of the subjects in these studies leaves no doubt. Having also researched the effects of exercise and diet on brain function extensively over the past five years, it seems clear to me that an aging brain can be a thriving brain. And some alterations to my diet in the past 12 months have helped me improve focus, attention and energy levels.
The time for a broader conversation around the destruction being wreaked upon our brain and overall health of sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits has come. We can no longer afford to adopt the ostrich mentality or the easy-going attitude we are known for. We cannot  kick the can down the road. We have a responsibility to present our children with an environment that promotes good health and help open their eyes to the alluring power of food marketing that is responsible, in part, destroying our national health.
It’s time to empower and educate ourselves about what we eat, what we need to do with our bodies, and demand that a new approach is taken through legislation and education. Let’s switch on our brains.

Paul O’Brien is a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise since 2007 and a qualified Life, Health & Nutrition Coach. He is co-owner of Republic of Fitness in Westport. He can be contacted on 086 1674515 or rofstudio@gmail.com.

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