Maximize the Long-Term Cognitive Benefits of Physical Exercise

When most people think about aging gracefully, it’s often about keeping the wrinkles at bay or doing a weekly sudoku puzzle to stay mentally sharp.  Since the wrinkles are rapidly creeping up on me as well, I don’t have much advice on that front— other than suggesting that a healthy and varied diet of fish, fresh produce, and tons of water is what seems to slow them down.

I can, however, provide you with some interesting research on how varying up your usual routine can have long-term benefits for your cognitive health.

What’s at Play

Our brains store memories inside nerve cells. Multiple nerve cells communicate with one another through the release of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Even though we lose some brain cells and our brains generate fewer neurotransmitters as we age, we have the ability to produce natural growth-promoting molecules called neurotrophins. Neurotrophins signal particular nerve cells to develop, grow, function, or survive and it is the release of these neurotrophins that can help fight off the effects of mental aging. 

To start the flow of neurotrophins, the brain must be stimulated by novel experiences that disrupt our usual routines and engage the senses and emotions, according to research compiled in the book Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness,” by neurobiologist Lawrence C. Katz, PhD and author Rubin Manning. 

Brain Aerobics

Neurobics is a term coined by Dr. Katz, to literally mean “aerobics exercises for the brain” and the book suggests that practicing different neurobic exercises can act as novel experiences for the brain. Neurobics can be done anywhere, anytime by performing simple tasks in what seems like offbeat ways.

For example, you can try closing your eyes while unlocking your front door, simply brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, or walking backwards on a treadmill.  Our senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch) all have their own sections in our brains.

When you engage one of your senses, you’re sending electrical activity along all the pathways to where that sense resides. Neurobics exercise those pathways to keep them fit, flexible and usable. 

How Do I Translate Neurobics to My Workouts?

For neurobics to work and create neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections), neurobics exercises should contain one or more of the following components:

  • A physical/motor component
  • An emotional component
  • A sensory component

Personally, I find it more practical to set aside an hour a day to workout, than I would trying to do all of my daily tasks in an offbeat, kooky way. Instead, I try to incorporate neurobics into my daily fitness routine, in order to try and kill two birds with one stone. You are also maximizing the brain-boosting benefits of exercise in this way because research suggests exercise improves neuroplasticity by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain.

Be Flexible and Vary It Up

When I workout, sometimes I lift weights and vary my speed, tempo, and/or combine different movements to create a new workout of the day (WOD). For example, I may wear running shoes one day, socks only on another day, or do bicep curls while I have my eyes closed or while balancing on one leg.

Other times, I might choose to learn a new dance sequence. Dancing is a great form of exercise that can incorporate neurobics principles, as research has shown that picking up new choreography requires the brain to go through a process (called praxis) that starts with conceptualization of a new activity (ideation), organizing and sequencing the novel motor actions in the brain (motor planning), and performing those motor actions (execution).

As a martial artist, the praxis process that your brain goes through to learn new choreography is very interesting to me, as creating and executing new combination attacks and self-defense techniques is very much akin to choreography praxis.

Most of the time, my favorite workouts are the ones where I combine karate techniques with strength training exercises and choreograph new tabata sequences and drills. I have a habit of incorporating and preferring martial arts WODs, but I try to vary the drills and combinations so that I am consistently forcing my body to do new and more complex movements, where I am forced to use my dominant and non-dominant side.

Try It Out at Home

The video featured in this article is an all body workout that introduces combination punching and kicking techniques in a few different ways— and in progressively more difficult drills. I’d love for you to try out this short, 8 minute workout video and let me know how you did when it came to switching the order of movements on exercise #11. 

Keep in mind that learning new and complex movements may seem daunting, but it gets progressively easier as you build on previous techniques. The most important factor will be how consistent you are in learning correct movement so that it is easier for your brain to move on to conceptualizing, motor planning and execution of more difficult combinations and drills. 

To Positively Strong Physical and Cognitive Health,


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