Can exercise make you smarter?

Can exercise make you smarter?

We all know that regular exercise can have dramatic effects on our physical health, as it helps protect us from preventable diseases, but what about our minds? The effects of physical fitness may extend beyond disease and obesity prevention, potentially impacting our intelligence from before birth well into old age.

Research on exercise and brain health

For fitness and brain health, the benefits may come early—perhaps as early as in the womb. A 2013 paper made a splash in health media when it claimed active pregnant mothers gave birth to smarter babies.

A review published in the CDC’s journal Prevention of Chronic Disease indicated that although longer-term and larger trials are needed, aerobic activity in children “is positively associated with cognition, academic achievement, behavior and psychosocial functioning outcomes.”

Some of the benefits of exercise (such as weight loss) come slowly and through repetition. But some research indicates the benefits of exercise on brain health and intelligence could come far more quickly.

One study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, found that a single 30-minute session of moderate-intensity exercise could improve memory, planning, and reasoning, and shorten the amount of time needed to complete cognitive tests.

Similar research on 21 young adults identified increases in memory accuracy and recall speed following a half-hour workout, regardless of whether the exercise was aerobic or strength training.

How exercise affects the brain

Attempting to explain how acute exercise delivers these benefits, researchers from the University of Illinois analyzed 20 undergraduates and found a 30-minute treadmill workout increased neuroelectric activity and resulting cognitive functions, like reasoning and problem solving.

But neuroelectric activity is only part of the answer. Scientists have determined that exercise increases production of beneficial hormones like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), for example. BDNF boosts communication between brain cells and stimulates the growth and development of blood vessels and neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for forming and organizing memories.

Several studies have linked exercise and the increased production of BDNF to increased hippocampal volume. The hippocampus, incidentally, shrinks with age and is the region of the brain that suffers the first and most profound damage when someone has Alzheimer’s disease.

Effects of exercise on brain health as we age

Earlier this year, researchers revealed findings that pointed at physical exercise in young adulthood improving cognition later in life. “Better verbal memory and faster psychomotor speed at ages 43 to 55 years were clearly associated with better CRF [cardiorespiratory fitness] 25 years earlier,” they concluded.

Researchers with King’s College London collected data on more than 9,000 people and found those who exercised at least once per week performed better on cognitive tests at age 50 than those who did not.

And much of the research indicates you can’t be too late to the party. Physical activity in midlife can reduce the risk of dementia in old age, according to the University of Eastern Finland. And a meta-analysis of 30 randomized control trials found exercise to have cognitive benefits for adults already suffering from dementia.

Shortcomings in the research

As with any growing field of study, the research is varied both in quality and results. Several of these studies involved very small groups of participants; others were limited in time and scope, or relied on participants to self-report their exercise habits. The research on fit pregnant mothers giving birth to smarter babies was criticized because it was promoted before even being accepted into a peer-reviewed journal.

Perhaps the best evidence for exercise and intelligence comes from firsthand experience. “Working out, for me, allows me to focus on what I need to do and block out distractions,” says LeeAnn Dillon, a fitness competitor and personal trainer from Raleigh, North Carolina, who spends an average of 10 hours in the gym each week when not training for a competition. And as a single mother who recently decided to go back to school, she relies heavily on focus and problem-solving.

People who exercise regularly report being better able to focus and perform on the days they work out; they report less stress and higher energy levels. “I think about… what bill needs to be paid, what my sons need, even the decision to go back to school while I’m working out,” Dillon says. “And in addition to giving me better focus, it gives me the confidence to take on new challenges.”

The Real Risk of Late Night Snacking

The Real Risk of Late Night Snacking

New research discovers late-night eating can wreak havoc on the part of our brains where memories are formed.

You’re pulling super late hours at work. You’re out drinking with your buddies. You’re spending long stretches of time traveling or commuting. Your grueling workout has tapped all the fuel in your tank. All these scenarios have one thing in common. (No, this isn’t an SAT question.) Each one has you raiding the fridge at midnight to quell the grumbling state of your stomach.

We’ve all succumbed to the cravings, but a new University of California study finds the late-night behavior could be affecting us beyond disrupting our sleep or packing on the pounds (as if that isn’t bad enough). Researchers found that midnight snacks can wreak havoc on the hippocampus, the part of our brains where memories are formed.

In the study, which was conducted on mice, researchers allowed some mice to eat at night—which is part of their normal eating pattern—and prompted others to feed during the daytime. All the mice were kept in cages with wire grids that restricted their access to food, and given a six-hour window—depending on the day or night schedule—in which they could eat. The researchers monitored their nocturnal tendencies, sleep-wake behavior, and their contextual fear conditioning (whether they remembered getting the shock—and by consequence showed signs of fear of it happening again) by administering a mild shock to the mice after they ate.

The mice who had eaten during hours they normally slept showed a natural fear response, which indicated that they remembered the shock, while the mice who had eaten during their typical waking hours were less likely to react. In other words, the first group of mice basically “forgot” they had been shocked the last time they ate at that hour. Turns out, digesting food when the mice were meant to be asleep affected their long-term memory and mental function. The researchers theorize it’s because these mice had reduced levels of a protein called CREB, which is essential for the body’s internal clock and the brain’s ability to form memories.

So how does it influence us?

Lead study author Dawn Loh told the Daily Mail: “We have provided the first evidence that taking regular meals at the wrong time of day has far-reaching effects for learning and memory. Since many people find themselves working or playing during times when they’d normally be asleep, it is important to know that this could dull some of the functions of the brain.”

However, more studies need to be done in order to truly see how eating when we typically should be sleeping can impact our health—aside from raising blood sugar levels (enhancing the risk of diabetes and heart problems), which we already know. Take note if you’re a chronic night owl or frequent late-night fridge-raider.

7 Exercises for Killer Arms and Shoulders

7 Exercises for Killer Arms and Shoulders

Strong, toned arms and shoulders can make you feel like a total badass–whether you’re nailing those burpees during bootcamp or showing off your results in a racerback tank. Time to get lifting, pulsing, and pushing, ladies: These seven arm-shaking moves are totally worth the burn.

1. Rolling Push-Up

Start in a high plank with a 10- to 15-pound medicine ball under left hand.
Engage core and bend elbows, lowering into a low push-up position.
Push back up to high plank and roll ball to right hand (as shown), keeping elbows away from body.
Repeat in opposite direction for 1 rep. Do 12 reps.

2. Supergirl Soar

Lie facedown, a light weight in each hand, arms at sides.
Lift upper body and arms (as shown) to start.
Keeping upper body lifted, reach your arms straight in front of you, shoulders next to ears.
Pause; return to start. Do 12 reps.

3. Resistance Band X-Raise

Stand on a resistance band with feet hip-width apart.
Criss-cross it in front of you and hold handles at hips, palms in.
Step to left as you raise hands to chest, elbows out (as shown).
Return to start; repeat on opposite side for 1 rep. Do 20 reps.

4. Bow and Arrow

Stand with feet staggered wide, left foot in front, a heavy weight in each hand at sides.
Bend knees and lean forward as you reach right hand toward left foot (as shown).
Straighten legs, drawing right weight to waist.
Do 15 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

5. Triangle Push-Up

Start in a plank.
Walk hands together so thumbs and forefingers form a triangle.
Do a complete push-up (as shown) for 1 rep.
Too tough? Lower your knees. Do 12 reps.

6. Downward Dog Push-Up

Start in a downward dog position.
Bend at the elbows, sliding the shoulder blades down the back, and then pressing back up to the starting position for 1 rep.
Start with 10 reps; build up to 20.

7. Chair Dip

Sit on edge of a chair, hands on edge of seat, fingers forward, legs extended, feet flexed.
Use arms to lift yourself off chair.
Bend elbows, lowering body until upper arms are almost parallel to floor, hips directly under shoulders (as shown).
Push through hands to rise back up for 1 rep. Do 12 reps.

5 Fruits to Help You Lose Weight

5 Fruits to Help You Lose Weight

Tired of root vegetables and winter squash? As the weather gets warmer, fresh fruits are more likely to grace your refrigerator. Fruits are naturally low calorie, sweet, and nutritionally invaluable, as they provide a range of vitamins and minerals. These five fruits pack a powerful nutritional punch and can help blast away those last few winter pounds with their high fiber content.

Raspberries

Raspberries are chock full of fiber and contain essential nutrients including vitamins C, manganese, and vitamin K. Manganese helps burn fat by boosting your metabolism, while fiber helps slow down your digestive process, leaving you feeling full for longer. A single cup of raspberries packs 8 grams of belly-filling fiber, more than a 25 percent of your total daily needs, in only 64 calories.

Pears

There’s a reason why pears are considered a natural laxative – they’re packed with fiber! Just one medium-sized pear is loaded with 6 grams of fiber and only 100 calories. They’re also a great source of vitamin C and can help keep your cholesterol in check. The fiber acts like a sponge, absorbing the cholesterol and pulling it out of your body. Need a new, healthy dessert idea? Try poached pears!

5 Fruits to Help You Lose Weight

Blackberries

Blackberries are rich in antioxidants like catechins, which give them the natural ability to help activate fat-burning genes in belly-fat cells. They’re also loaded with polyphenols – chemical compounds that may prevent fat from forming. Just a cupful of blueberries packs 8 grams of fiber and more than a quarter of your daily needs for vitamins C and K. Vitamin K is important for bone health and blood clot formation.

Oranges

An orange a day can keep the doctor away, with 1 orange fulfilling more than 90% of your daily vitamin C recommendation. Vitamin C is important for maintaining collagen, an important structural component of connective tissue, bones, and skin. Vitamin C also has antioxidant properties, which aid in removing harmful substances from the body. Also, Oranges are 87% water, which makes them an incredibly hydrating fruit, giving you a natural energy boost.

Passion Fruit

Passion fruits tend to shy away from the public eye, but their delicious sweet and tart flavor are sure to impress. ¼ cup of passion fruit has over 6g of fiber, and a substantial amount of vitamin A and B vitamins. Vitamin A is essential for good eye sight and B vitamins aid in metabolism of foods, making sure you get the energy you need from the food you eat. Try scooping out the pulp of a passion fruit on top of plain Greek yogurt for natural sweetness and flavor.

Daily stretches to improve your flexibility

Daily stretches to improve your flexibility

What better way to loosen up than to incorporate some easy stretches into your daily routine? Stretching every day not only enhances the body’s range of motion, it also decreases the risk of injuries and improves your overall athletic performance. Check out these quick stretches that can be done any time, anywhere!

1. Overhead side lunge

Start by spreading your feet wide apart, bending one knee and keeping the opposite leg straight. As you lean to the side of the bent knee, reach your arm over top of your head to elongate your obliques. This stretch helps loosen up the hamstrings, hip flexors, hip adductors, obliques and lower back. Repeat this stretch on the opposite leg before moving onto the next stretch.

2. Shoulder stretch

Cross one arm over your chest, placing your hand or forearm onto your elbow. Taking deep exhales, apply pressure to your elbow, pushing your arm into your chest. Be sure to keep your hips and shoulders facing forward. Switch arms before moving onto the next stretch.

3. Reverse warrior stretch

Stand facing one direction and step your right foot back, almost as if you are preparing for a split. With your left knee bent, and your right hand resting on your right leg, stretch your left arm over the top of your head.

Be sure to stretch your fingers away from each other. If you’re a beginner, or you just want a deeper, more lengthy stretch, step that right foot back further, reach longer and sink more into the stretch with each breath. Perform on the opposite leg before moving onto the next stretch.

4. Reaching lower calf stretch

To start, stand with your feet less than hip-width apart. Reach both hands toward the ceiling and step one foot out in front of you with your heel on the ground and toe pointed up. Keeping your toe up, bend your opposite knee to bring your finger tips to meet your toe. Once you start to feel your calf muscle loosen up, switch and repeat the motion on the other leg.

5. Standing quad reach and stretch

Begin this stretch by kicking your heel back toward your butt (backside, glutes). Grab your ankle and place your hand out in front of you (or on a stable surface) for balance. Once you feel comfortable in this position, lean down as far as you can, reaching your fingertips toward your toe. This is a great way to stretch out the quads, hamstrings, calves and adductor muscles simultaneously. Not only does it improve your flexibility, this is also a great way to enhance your stability. Perform this stretch a few times on one leg before moving onto the other.

Small food changes that help you slim down

Small food changes that help you slim down

Eating is such a basic and pleasurable part of our lives that we often do it mindlessly.

Pay a little more attention and you might find you’re much more in control of how much you consume than you think. You’ll also discover how much things around you — like plate size — can influence your food decisions.

Little changes can mean a big difference for your waist line — something that fascinates researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. They released a host of findings as part of “The Behavioral Science of Eating” in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. Here are 10 insights that could change your eating habits:

1. Skip a meal if you’re not particularly hungry.

Are you heading for the fridge because your stomach is growling or just because you’re bored? Try to listen to your body. Eating when you’re not hungry causes your blood sugar to spike, which is not healthy.

2. Be careful around “healthy” food labels.

People tend to overeat food described as “healthy” because they think it’s less filling than “unhealthy” choices. Knowing this, pay attention to the recommended serving size and don’t overload your plate.

3. Install mirrors where you eat.

It turns out watching yourself devour chocolate cake makes the treat less tasty compared to eating it in a room where you can’t see your reflection. Mirrors in the kitchen and dining room add a bit of discomfort if you’re overindulging, but don’t change the taste of healthy food, researchers found.

Small food changes that help you slim down

4. Healthy meals can take a cue from “Happy Meals”.

In experiments, adults and children would rather eat a smaller portion of food paired with a toy or gift card than opt for a larger meal without a prize. Brain scans showed they responded to the prize in the same way they reacted to additional food.

5. Take a hint from Disney’s influence on diners.

When fruits and vegetables became default side dishes for kids’ meals at Walt Disney World restaurants, diners ate at least 11 percent more of them. Make healthy side dishes a default in your own kitchen.

6. Read nutrition labels carefully.

Don’t be seduced by a tasty treat that hides its true calorie count in a very small recommended serving size. Once you start, will you really stop yourself at two pieces or one thin slice? “Smaller recommended serving sizes will let all nutrition values on the label appear smaller too,” says lead author Dr. Ossama Elshiewy from the University of Goettingen. That can lead to overeating.

7. Use smaller plates.

RELATED: Master your munching: Simple ways to eat less every day

8. You’ll eat less from a less fancy plate.

We tend to throw away more food when we eat from paper plates than when we use ceramic dishware. Researchers think this is because we tend to associate food on disposable plates as more disposable, too. No one wants to waste food, but this research shows plate material plays a role in our consumption habits.

9. Choose a fork over a spoon.

This simple change can make a difference in how much you eat. People perceive a food as lower in calories and they want more of it when they eat it with a spoon than a fork. When it doubt, go for the fork!

10. Avoid negative messages.

Dieters who watched a “food police”-style video that bluntly told them “All sugary snacks are bad” ate 39 percent more cookies than those who saw a more positive clip. A gentler combination of negative and positive messages about food has a better effect, researchers say.

10 Ways to Beat Boredom on Your Run

10 Ways to Beat Boredom on Your Run

To fight boredom, engage your mind as well as your body. To accomplish this, I suggest mixing up your runs as much as you can. Avoid running the same route, at the same pace, day after day.

Run in different locations with varying mileage. Try diverse workouts, and do them with new running partners. Even better, find a local running group. Mixing it up helps get you out the door, keeps it fun, and boosts your fitness level.

It can help to plan your runs for the week ahead. Keep in mind that every run you do should have a purpose to it. Runs can be easy for recovery, fast for speed, long run for endurance, or hill workouts to build strength. Plan your route and distance of the run with the purpose in mind.

And, most important of all, keep it fun. Regardless of how hard or easy, or how long or short, the run should be fun. Experiment! Find the workouts and the running routes you enjoy the most and incorporate them, but keep searching out new options to keep it fresh, exciting, and interesting.

Here are some suggestions for mixing up your week:

1. Run to a destination. For example, run to the gym or run to complete an errand—like going to the post office. You can meet up with friends so you have a ride home or plan to run back home.

2. Easy / medium / hard run. For a speed workout, run easy for three minutes, at a medium difficulty for two minutes, and hard for one minute. Repeat this sequence for the duration of your run.

3. Landmark runs. After a warmup, run hard for a short interval to a landmark like a mailbox, a driveway, or a streetlight along the route; then jog easy for recovery to the next landmark. Repeat.

4. Explore a new running area. Go to a park, or a new neighborhood popular with runners.

5. Try a trail run. The concentration needed for trail running engages your mind as you figure out how to traverse uneven terrain, rocks, roots, hills, water, and other obstacles. It’s a great strength builder, too. (Check out these 21 trail tips to get you started.)

6. Plan a hill repeat run. Find a hill in your area that is about a quarter mile in length with a nice incline. Run one mile for a warmup then tackle the hill. Run up the hill and jog easy down, then turn around and run up the hill again. Repeat several times. Run a one-mile cooldown afterward.

7. Try a track workout for speed. Run a one-mile warmup. Time yourself and run one lap at a hard pace; then, jog or walk one lap for recovery. Repeat four to six times. Set a consistent pace for the hard laps and stay within a five-second variance for each lap. Gradually increase the number of laps you run over the weeks.

8. Make running dates with friends. Nothing like good conversation to help pass the miles.

9. Running on a treadmill? Try using a pre-programmed hill run or interval run. The treadmill will automatically speed up or down or add an incline. Varying the pace and incline will engage your mind. (Our chief running officer, Bart Yasso, has a few favorite treadmill workouts you could try as well.)

10. Register for a race. There is nothing like making a race commitment to get you out the door and focused on training. Select a local race or go for a destination race. Finding a race somewhere you have always wanted to visit is a great motivator and a fun way to tour that area. If you have already done some races, select a race that presents a different challenge—like a new distance, a trail race, or an obstacle race.