Picture of a brain emphasizing the mind-body connection

Physical Activity for Mental Sharpness

We’re all looking for the key to keeping our brains healthy and sharp. My expertise as an orthopedic physical therapist primarily lies in physical healing and strength maintenance. It turns out the key to staying mentally strong has a lot to do with our physical health. One of the best ways to stay mentally sharp is by getting active. Physical activity truly is good for our brain!

Thomas Wood, MD, Ph.D., is a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in physiology and neuroscience. Drawing inspiration from his research on ways to improve our cognition, this post explores how to use physical activity to improve mental sharpness.

Picture showing the importance of training your brain emphasizing the mind-body connection

Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

Dr. Wood’s work underscores the link between physical health and cognitive function. This relationship suggests that activities benefiting the body also positively affect the mind. We observe that patients who engage in regular physical activity not only heal faster but also exhibit improved cognitive functions such as memory and problem-solving.

Physical Activities for Cognitive Health

Aerobic Exercise

Have you ever come back from a walk or run with a great new idea, insight, or inspiration? Activities like walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling increase heart rate and pump more oxygen to the brain, enhancing neuroplasticity, which is crucial for learning and memory.

Person jogging as a way to stay physically healthy and mentally sharp.

Strength Training

Strength training is known to improve cognitive function, especially in seniors. Exercises like squats and resistance band workouts are highly beneficial. Resistance training positively affects functional changes in the brain and may prevent structural atrophy. There is an increase in evidence suggesting a link between muscular strength and cognitive function in older adults.

Older adult performing strength training as a way to stay sharp mentally by performing physical activity.

Balance and Coordination Exercises

Practices such as yoga or Tai Chi enhance physical stability and stimulate brain regions involved in motor control, positively impacting cognitive sharpness. Movement that includes balance or motor skills is particularly protective against cognitive decline due to the added challenge of coordination.

Practicing yoga as a mind-body activity to use physical activity for mental sharpness.

Stretching and Flexibility

Regular stretching supports muscle health and joint flexibility. This is linked to cognitive health by helping us maintain mobility and activity levels. When combined with other exercises and performed at the right time, stretching helps us move better and be less susceptible to injury.

The Importance of Novelty and Challenge

Do Things You Aren’t Good At

While the above activities are great, the stakes are raised when you challenge your mind and body. Engaging in new and less familiar activities is vital for cognitive sharpness. Stepping out of our comfort zones to learn new skills or hobbies has a huge impact on cognition. Activities that provide the most significant cognitive stimulus involve learning and skill development. It’s how we developed when we were kids and how we can continue to stay sharp as we get older!

Some examples of beneficial activities include trying a new sport or physical activity, learning a new language or musical instrument, engaging in complex puzzles or strategy games, or exploring new hobbies like painting or woodworking. So go ahead and sign up for those tennis or golf lessons, or try learning Japanese or how to play the guitar; your brain will thank you!

A woman learning how to play golf using physical activity for mental sharpness.

Making Mistakes Matters

An integral part of trying new activities is making mistakes. When we engage in tasks that we’re not initially good at, our brain works harder to process and learn from these errors. This process is crucial for maintaining and enhancing cognitive function. The cocktail of hormones released as we try, fail, repeat, and learn provides the ideal environment for the brain to grow and adapt. All of those mistakes on the golf course help your brain get sharper!

Using tennis as a way to train the mind-body connection and stay sharp mentally

Lifestyle Factors

Our brain health is also dependent on how we take care of our body on a daily basis. Eating a diet rich in essential nutrients, similar to an anti-inflammatory diet, supports brain health. Getting adequate sleep is vital for cognitive function and memory consolidation.

Strong social connections also help maintain a sharp mind and improve overall well-being and health. Adding a social component to your physical activities, such as with group fitness classes, can be doubly beneficial.

Exercising in a group setting to promote social connection

Stay active, embrace new challenges, and keep your mind sharp!

Using physical activity to improve mental sharpness is both effective and fun. A combination of aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility exercises, complemented by engaging in new and challenging activities, significantly impacts cognitive health. The research is clear on the importance of physical activity and embracing novel challenges to keep our minds sharp. Remember, a well-functioning mind thrives in an active body!

Physical activity for mental sharpness.

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Picture of Carol Grgic, PT, OCS, CSCS

Carol Grgic, PT, OCS, CSCS

Carol Grgic is the owner and treating therapist at Elite Bodyworks in the Historic Third Ward, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has extensive experience treating athletes and active people of all levels. She has a particular interest in headache treatment. She also enjoys blogging about health and wellness topics.

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