By Kaki Zell
You know that exercise is good for your body — but did you know that it’s good for your brain as well? Yep, exercise has two-for-one benefits, which is all the more reason to start working out if you don’t already. Here are six exercises that will benefit both your body and your mind.
Most studies on the mental benefits of exercise have focused on cardiovascular exercise that increases your body’s capacity to transport oxygen by strengthening your heart, lungs and blood vessels. One of the most popular and simple forms of cardiovascular exercise is running.
Beyond workout clothes, all that you need to get started running is a pair of sturdy running shoes. If you have podiatry issues, go for medical footwear with orthotic inserts that will enable you to walk or run with correct form. While walking won’t work your heart as much as running, it’s a great way to get started if you’ve never run before. You can always intersperse bursts of jogging with walking intervals to build your stamina.
If you’d like accountability, there are bound to be senior walking and running groups of all skill levels in your area, and you can always sign up for a race to give yourself a goal to train towards.
Cycling is another form of cardiovascular exercise that has both mental and physical benefits. While it requires more equipment than running — namely, a bike and safety gear such as a helmet — it’s also lower impact because you’re not physically striking the ground, so many people find it easier on their joints. Biking also offers a great way to get outdoors and cover a lot of ground if the weather is agreeable.
However, if it’s too hot or cold or if you have balance or coordination issues that preclude you from biking outdoors, you can always try a stationary bike within the safety and comfort of the gym. Even the most basic gym will usually have a stationary bike or two, and some are even designed so you can stand up and otherwise pedal like a real bike. Other bikes come with digital screens, so you can pretend to bike along famous trails and natural attractions. And of course, there are many spin classes at gyms and studios if you’d prefer to be social while you cycle.
3. Aerobics Classes
"Aerobic" is actually a broad term that literally means “with oxygen,” and it refers to moderate intensity exercises that can be fueled by the oxygen you’re taking in. It’s often contrasted with anaerobic exercise, which is so intense that oxygen isn’t enough fuel, so your body starts breaking down sugars and forming lactate instead.
However, aerobic classes use a specific style of exercise to get your heart rate up and build your cardiovascular strength. You’ll usually remain upright and perform a variety of moves such as stepping patterns and arm lifts. There are different types of aerobics classes, including dance aerobics, water aerobics in pool and step aerobics, which use a low plastic step.
Some classes may also use other equipment, such as small hand weights or resistance bands, for extra intensity. There’s a lot of diversity among aerobics class styles and instructors, so for those who struggle with the monotony of running or cycling, these classes can be a great option.
While it does require access to a pool, swimming offers many benefits that other exercises can’t provide. The buoyancy of the water supports your body and cushions your joints, making this a great workout for those who struggle with high impact exercises. The gentle pressure of the water also improves circulation and reduces swelling, similar to the concept of compression therapy.
But just because it’s low impact doesn’t mean it’s not a hard workout: Swimming will get your heart rate and breathing way up, strengthening your cardiovascular system and sending oxygen coursing through your body and brain. Swimming also works your whole body and will build your muscles as well because you’re moving against the resistance of the water. Plus, swimming is an excellent, practical skill to have, especially if you spend a lot of time near or on the water.
5. Yoga and Tai Chi
Cardiovascular activity isn’t the only exercise that’s good for your body and brain. While the research into other forms of exercise is in its earlier stages, it appears that lower-intensity forms of exercise that combine both mental and physical aspects, such as yoga and tai chi, can also be beneficial.
Developing in northern India more than 5,000 years ago, yoga is a collection of physical, mental and spiritual practices that include breath control, meditation and specific body postures (a.k.a yoga poses). Tai chi is an ancient form of Chinese fighting that was originally used as a martial art. Today the series of gentle, flowing movements is used to reduce stress, stretch your muscles and treat various health problems.
There are many different styles of both yoga and tai chi that offer a variety of intensities as well as varying focuses on mind vs. body. If you’re new to either practice, look up classes in your area so you can get some instruction as you start out.
Weightlifting is definitely good for your body, and it may also be good for your brain. While weightlifting is (usually) not as heart-pumping as true cardiovascular exercises, it can definitely work your heart if you’re lifting heavy weights or moving through sets quickly.
Weightlifting can also build muscle and strengthen bones — which fights osteoporosis and other problems — in a way that pure cardiovascular activity can’t. Again, the research is a bit newer when it comes to the mental benefits, but there’s still evidence that weight training can address issues such as anxiety. Weightlifting can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but a personal trainer can show you proper form and how to use machines correctly so that you don’t injure yourself.
With the new year approaching, now is the perfect time to dedicate yourself to building a workout habit or to commit to shaking up your routine. Check out these six activities if you need inspiration for exercises that will boost your physical and mental health at the same time.