A Mental Workout

By Yin Nwe Ko


O UR minds are like muscles that need regular exercise to stay fit and healthy. Just as we engage in physical activities to keep our bodies in shape, giving our brains a good workout is equally important. This mental exercise is crucial for maintaining cognitive functions, enhancing memory, and promoting overall well-being.


One way to give our brains a workout is through reading. Reading not only provides us with information but also stimulates our imagination. Whether it’s a captivating story or an informative article, reading challenges our brains to comprehend new ideas and perspectives. It is like taking our minds to the gym, where each word is a lift that strengthens our mental muscles.


Solving puzzles and playing brain games are also excellent mental exercises. Activities like Sudoku, crosswords, and chess require strategic thinking and problem-solving skills. These games challenge our brains to think critically and analytically, promoting the growth of neural connections. Just as physical exercise builds muscle strength, engaging in these mental activities enhances our cognitive abilities.


Learning a new skill or language is another effective mental workout. Acquiring new knowledge stimulates the brain and keeps it active. Whether it’s picking up a musical instrument, trying a new hobby, or learning a foreign language, the process of acquiring new skills creates new neural pathways in the brain, contributing to mental flexibility and adaptability.


Socializing and engaging in meaningful conversations also play a crucial role in keeping our minds sharp. Communication involves the exchange of ideas, which stimulates cognitive processes such as comprehension, memory, and problem-solving. Sharing thoughts with others and actively participating in discussions exercise our mental faculties, keeping them agile and responsive.


In addition to these activities, regular physical exercise has been linked to cognitive benefits. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients that support optimal brain function. Exercise has been shown to improve memory, attention, and overall cognitive performance. It is a holistic approach to mental well-being that complements other mental workouts.


Furthermore, just as we prioritize physical exercise for a healthy body, incorporating mental workouts into our daily routines is essential for a healthy mind. Reading, solving puzzles, learning new skills, socializing, and staying physically active are all effective ways to keep our brains fit and agile. By making these activities a regular part of our lives, we can enjoy the cognitive benefits that lead to a more fulfilling and mentally vibrant existence. So, let’s embrace the idea of a mental workout and give our brains the attention and exercise they deserve.


Here, there is an interesting article I have recently read in Reader’s Digest, a worldwide magazine, and I would like to share it in order to understand more about the mental workout for my esteemed readers. It is as follows: -


I’ve jogged through postpartum depression (twice), relied on Pilates classes to help me stretch during stressful times in life, and I often go for a walk after a particularly bad day. So, it’s no surprise to me that there’s a link between exercise and mental health. But scientists have now made it official: research has found a direct connection between movement and mood.


Each time you work up a sweat, your body releases feel-good neurotransmitters, or “happy hormones,” including endorphins, dopamine, and endocannabinoids, the latter being responsible for the socalled runner’s high. Now, researchers are also pointing to myokines — dubbed “hope molecules” — as an important contributor to the mental health benefits of exercise.


When our muscles contract, chains of amino acids called myokines are released into the bloodstream; they help your muscles and organs communicate. Researchers are looking into the effect of myokines on the brain. They think this communication increases resilience to stress, reduces symptoms of trauma and anxiety, and has a direct effect on depression. A 2021 review published in Neuropharmacology showed evidence that myokines boost brain function (Eg., improving memory and mood).


“Myokines reduce systemic inflammation, which is especially beneficial for people with drug-resistant depression whose low mood is linked to high inflammation,” explains Dr Jennifer Heisz, an expert in brain health and associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada.


There’s also a growing body of research proving that exercise helps build key connections between the networks within the brain, too, improving overall cognitive performance. Studies have shown that physical activity stimulates creativity, sharpens judgment skills, and improves mental energy.


It can also help to slow age-related cognitive decline, possibly even stalling the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. A new study published in the Journal for Alzheimer’s Disease Reports found that walking regularly (30 minutes a day, four times a week) was enough to improve memory measurable, even in people who have already been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.


A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that treatment for depression can be much more effective when physical activity is added to the usual care. Participants found benefits after 12 weeks of exercising for 30 to 60 minutes a day.


“While exercise is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment, physical activity can complement and enhance the effects of the treatment,” says lead researcher Ben Singh, a research fellow at the University of South Australia. He says regular exercise in a group setting can boost self-esteem and decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness.


Whether you’re cycling, swimming, walking around your neighbourhood, or doing yoga, getting sweaty is good for your body and mind. But how much activity is enough to maintain brain health? Experts suggest that you aim for a minimum of ten to 30 minutes, three to five days each week.


“For reducing depression, research suggests that aerobic exercise is less about intensity and more about duration,” says Heisz.


Just ten minutes of light movement, like gentle laps in the pool or walking your dog, are enough to boost your mood, and the effects increase for every ten extra minutes that you move, for up to an hour. Exercising beyond 60 minutes didn’t provide extra mental health benefits, according to Singh’s study.


Strength training, such as Pilates and lifting weights, does count toward your daily exercise goals (and is essential for strong bones). Research shows that increasing the intensity of resistance workouts by just ten per cent will yield a greater antidepressant effect. “It is amazing to consider how moving our bodies can heal our minds,” says Heisz. To get the biggest overall health boost, the key is to zero in on sports and activities you enjoy so you’ll keep going back to them.


In brief, the link between physical exercise and mental health is now more apparent than ever. As we explore the profound effects of exercise on our mood and cognitive functions, it becomes clear that keeping our bodies active is not just beneficial for our physical well-being but is also a crucial aspect of maintaining a healthy mind.


As mentioned above, the scientific connection between movement and mood, the release of “happy hormones,” and the intriguing role of myokines, also known as “hope molecules”, highlight the intricate relationship between our bodies and minds. It is fascinating to discover that simple activities like walking or engaging in a favourite sport can have such positive impacts on our mental health.


The benefits of exercise extend beyond just the immediate mood boost. Research suggests that regular physical activity can contribute to reducing symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression. Furthermore, the positive effects on cognitive performance and the potential to slow age-related cognitive decline offer additional incentives to incorporate exercise into our daily routines.


The idea that exercise can complement and enhance professional mental health treatment emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach to well-being. Whether it’s a leisurely walk, a swim, or strength training, the key is to find activities that we enjoy, ensuring that we are more likely to stick with them. As we strive to maintain brain health, the recommendation of at least ten to 30 minutes, three to five days a week, serves as a practical guide for integrating exercise into our lives.


In the end, the profound connection between physical activity and mental well-being encourages us to prioritize a comprehensive approach to health — one that not only focuses on our bodies but also on nurturing our minds. So, let’s lace up our sneakers, find activities that bring us joy, and embark on the journey of a healthier and happier life — one step, or perhaps a brisk walk, at a time.

Reference: Reader’s Digest December 2023