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Last week, scared silly about a speech I had to give, I rode my bike to the event, hoping it would calm my jitters. Luckily, it did that and a whole lot more: Cycling cleared my head so that I was able to remember the lecture word for word without notes. I gave the best talk of my life.
Turns out, that half-hour workout was the smartest pre-speech prep I could have done, according to a number of new studies showing that exercise strengthens the body and the mind. For instance, a recent finding from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reveals that people perform significantly better on memory tests if they take them shortly after doing 30 minutes of aerobics. "Learning, remembering, reasoning, alertness, and mood improve with fitness," says Patrick Hogan, DO, a neurologist with Puget Sound Neurology in Tacoma, Washington. "A physical workout is better than any medicine. It's the single most powerful thing you can do for your brain."
Add healthy eating to your stay-fit regimen and your mental power will skyrocket. Check out our get-smart plan for the lowdown on the best foods and moves for your noggin.Exercise Your Mind
To be at your sharpest, hit the ground running. "A challenging exercise regimen increases blood flow and oxygen throughout our bodies and activates growth-stimulating hormones in the brain that help form new cells there," Dr. Hogan says. No wonder a recent study found that fitness buffs have a larger hippocampus -- the region of the brain that plays a crucial role in learning and memory -- than couch potatoes do. Active people may even be smarter: Exercise makes tough mental tasks, such as plotting strategy, easier to do by forging new connections between our brain cells, says Kirk I. Erickson, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and coauthor of the study.
Working out also helps reverse the effects of chronic stress, which may hurt your brain. "When we're under constant pressure, our bodies become flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone that changes the structure of the brain, shrinks the size of the hippocampus, and hinders our ability to learn and remember," says Raj Shah, MD, medical director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Exercise appears to lower cortisol levels and "rebuild" mental muscle by revving up the process that generates new cells and neurons. "In addition, physical activity may produce endorphins and other natural chemicals that calm us down and help us focus," Dr. Shah explains.Your Mental-Fitness Game Plan
"Aim for 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity at least three days a week," Erickson says. "Anything that leaves you out of breath is a good choice," like biking, running, and using the elliptical. To make your workout even more challenging mentally and physically, do intervals, as in this cardio circuit from Johanna Subotovsky, a trainer at Equinox Fitness Clubs in New York City.
Food is the fuel that keeps your brain running, but noshing on the right stuff is key. "You need a huge variety of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients for maximum brain health," says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, a professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at UCLA. That means piling your plate with as many different fruits and vegetables as you can every day, including "berries and apples, because they contain a lot of vitamin C and flavonoids, both of which are powerful antioxidants that keep your brain cells in prime condition," Gomez-Pinilla says. Broccoli and spinach have more vitamins A, C, and E than most other veggies do. And fish is crucial because it's chock-full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which keep the membranes of brain cells strong. Be sure to eat every few hours to regulate your blood sugar. If it gets too low, you won't be able to think straight.
Hungry? Try our sample day's menu below -- it will help make you sharper by bedtime.Power Meal: Breakfast
1 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1 sprinkle crunchy whole-grain cereal like Grape-Nuts or Kashi GoLean
1 big handful blueberries
1 cup coffeeRev-It-Up Results
Greek yogurt is high in protein, which provides a steady supply of energy, helping your brain stay charged all morning. Protein also increases levels of epinephrine and dopamine, two chemicals that make you more alert. The carbs in the cereal give you a dose of glucose, which gets you going. Blueberries are potent antioxidants that have been shown to spur brain-cell production and help improve memory. Caffeine, a stimulant, speeds up your brain and can boost memory and reasoning, research shows.Power Meal: Lunch
1 ounce walnuts (about 14 halves)
Fruits and vegetables such as red grapes and yellow peppers
1 cup green teaRev-It-Up Results
Spinach is loaded with vitamin E, which helps neutralize the free radicals in your body that damage brain cells, and the oil in the vinaigrette aids in the absorption of the vitamin. Walnuts are a top source of omega-3s, which reduce inflammation in the brain and allow it to function properly. Colorful fruits and vegetables contain an array of brain-boosting antioxidants and nutrients, and green tea is rich in flavonoids, which improve mental performance.Power Meal: Dinner
1/2 cup fortified whole wheat pasta
4 ounces salmon
1 cup broccoli or brussels sproutsRev-It-Up Results
Fortified pasta is enriched with folic acid, a nutrient that may improve brain function, according to a study. Tomato sauce is loaded with antioxidants that help prevent inflammation. Fish such as salmon and mackerel are packed with omega-3s. Broccoli and brussels sprouts contain vitamin E.Smart Snack
For a quick boost, combine 1 cup green tea + 1/2 cup strawberries + 1/2 cup grapes or Concord grape juice + 1/2 cup blueberries + 1 cup ice + 1 tablespoon agave syrup in a juicer or blender. Process until smooth.
Recipe from Dave Grotto, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member
Along with working out and eating right, these healthy habits will help give you a mental edge.Get Your ZZZs
Sleep deprivation temporarily reduces levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that's crucial for storing new information, says Gomez-Pinilla. "Snooze enough to feel rested -- about eight hours -- to keep your memory sharp," he advises.Protect Your Head
"Always wear a helmet when you're cycling or skiing," says R. Scott Turner, MD, PhD, director of Georgetown University's Memory Disorders Program in Washington, D.C.Stop Multitasking
"Working on two things at once will split your concentration, making it harder to learn new things," says David A. Wolk, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania and assistant director of the Penn Memory Center in Philadelphia.Do Mental Aerobics
Every day, challenge yourself to memorize new information, like the important facts in a news story or the names of people you've just met at a party, says Robin West, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.Butt Out
"Smoking increases your risk of cerebrovascular disease, a condition in which your brain can't get all the blood it needs to function properly," Dr. Wolk explains. Just one more smart reason to kick the habit.
Sources: Dawn Jackson Blatner, a FITNESS advisory board member and author of The Flexitarian Diet; Dave Grotto, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member and author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life; Alice Merritt, MD, campus dietitian for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington; Kerry Neville, RD, a nutritionist in Kirkland, Washington; Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2009.