We all know that exercise, time spent outdoors, and healthy eating is good for you in general but they also have a very positive effect on your brain, helping improve not only your physical health but your mental health as well.
All three can help reduce symptoms for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, improve your overall mood, and can even help lower the risk or help prevent the onset of health conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
There are some incredible ways exercise, the outdoors, and healthy eating can help improve your cognitive function and mental well being, and reduce the risk or symptoms of physical and mental health conditions.
Exercise and brain health
You don’t need to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits that exercise has to offer the brain. Just 30 minutes of physical activity a day (or 150 minutes a week) can help you improve your brain health, lose weight, reduce your risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease and some forms of cancer, add years to your life, and help combat depression, stress, and anxiety. Why not enjoy nature’s gym?
Exercise and new brain cell growth
Scientists have found that regular exercise promotes neurogenesis, which is when new brain cells are created. Animal studies have shown that, when compared with sedentary behaviour, exercise can increase the birth rate of new neurons within the hippocampus, and improve neuronal spine density, neurotrophin levels, synaptic plasticity, and spatial memory function! That all sounds like a lot of neuroscientific jargon, but the crux of it is that exercise can help your brain regenerate and improve functionality.
Exercise can prolong your lifespan
Aside from the benefits exercise has on your body, it can also increase the size of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus in your brain! Your brain is like a muscle and, as such, can grow and get stronger with exercise. The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are both areas of the brain that become heavily affected by neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. So, increasing the strength and size of these parts of the brain can help combat, reduce the risk, and delay the onset of age-related health concerns.
Exercise can increase your intelligence
Studies have shown that exercise helps improve your mental capabilities. Regular physical activity can improve both your long-term and short-term memory, allowing you to store and recall information more effectively. Research shows that exercising as little as a few times a week can have a significant positive effect on memory. Exercise also increases your overall energy levels during the day and improves your sleep, both of which improve brain function.
Getting outdoors and brain health
Spending time outdoors, especially getting out and about in more natural environments, can have a significant positive effect on your overall health but also on not just your mood and mental health but even your brain structure!
Spending time outdoors can reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders
Numerous psychiatric disorders are associated with a reduction in grey matter within the area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. Research has shown that spending time outside, regardless of any other possible influencing factors, has a positive effect on the grey matter within parts of the prefrontal cortex. This adds to the growing body of research and neuroscientific support for prescribing time outdoors as a treatment for mental disorders.
Access to natural environments improves cognitive function
Studies have shown that both children and adults that have more access to natural environments have better cognitive function than those with less access to natural environments. More green spaces near schools have been reported to improve cognitive development amongst children and having natural views helps to improve their self-control. In addition, adults that live in areas with more natural environments have better attention functionality as well as better working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility than those living in more urban environments with less access to nature.
Sounds of nature can help your brain function better
Obviously getting outdoors is the best way to improve your brain function but research has shown that just hearing the sounds of nature can have a restorative effect on your brain. Studies have shown better results on tough cognitive tests by subjects that have listened to sounds associated with nature, such as crickets chirping or waves crashing, than subjects who listened to more urban related sounds like cars and cafe noises.
Getting out doors makes you happy
Getting outdoors, spending time in nature, and even listening to nature sounds all have an impressive positive effect on your cognitive ability, functioning, and even brain health and development. However, the benefits of spending time outdoors and in nature goes beyond being able to pay attention more or improve your test results. Many, many studies have shown a positive correlation between time spent outdoors and levels of happiness and well being, sense of a purpose in life, and an increase in positive social interactions. In addition, research has shown that time spent outdoors has a positive effect on mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, and more.
Healthy eating and brain health
Although there are no magic cures for mental health conditions and diseases of the brain when it comes to food, research has shown strong links between healthy eating and brain health.
Omega-3 fats and the brain
Fats make up roughly 60% of the brain (half of which is made up of Omega-3 fatty acids) and play an important role in cognitive ability – in fact, a deficiency in omega-3 fats has been linked to a reduction in cognitive function. Research has also indicated that a diet rich in omega-3 fats may have a preventative effect on the development and progression of dementia. Omega-3 fats can be found in foods such as oily fish but if you’re following a vegan diet, you can source omega-3 fats from olive oil, chia seeds, edamame beans, walnuts, seaweed, flax seeds, and kidney beans.
Vitamins and minerals and the brain
A balanced diet, which includes plenty of fruit and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals, has been shown to help reduce the risk of the cognitive decline that is associated with ageing. Vitamins B, C, D, & E are especially important for brain development and functionality and the mineral magnesium, found in avocados, nuts, and spinach, helps to improve neural plasticity, allowing your neural network to continuously change and develop. As a result, vitamins and minerals play an important role in helping to maintain and improve memory, and can reduce the symptoms (and even combat) depression, anxiety, and stress related disorders.
Protein and the brain
The benefits of protein towards muscle growth and exercise recovery is well known by most people interested in their physical health or learning about the positive impact of good nutrition. What is not as commonly known is the positive impact eating a diet that is rich in protein has on your brain and mental wellbeing.
Protein is made up of amino acids and amino acids have an important role to play in the creation of neurotransmitters within the brain, allowing brain cells to communicate with one another. One type of neurotransmitter that protein helps to create is dopamine. Low levels of dopamine have been linked to a long list of mental health disorders, including ADHD, Alzheimer’s, addiction, schizophrenia, and depression. A balanced diet that includes good sources of protein can also help you stay energised and alert, thanks to the neurotransmitters it helps to create, and helps your brain do its job in keeping the rest of your body running smoothly.
So, there you have it! A healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise, good nutrition, and time spent outdoors has such a positive effect on your brain, and not just in terms of your overall mood but it can even change the very structure of your brain for the better!