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Want to boost your brain power? Three ways getting physical can help

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

You know that exercise is good for your body. What you might not realize is that exercise is just as good for your brain as it is for your muscles. We are now learning how exercise can improve concentration, learning, focus and memory, and can even prevent and treat mental illnesses.

Here's what we know about the correlation between exercise and the brain:

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1. Increasing your physical activity results in reduced stress levels and helps your body deal with the hormones that are released when you're under stress.

2. Increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain from exercise promotes the production of new cells and neural connections in the areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory, problem solving and creativity.

3. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, chemicals that are released by the pituitary gland in response to pain or stress. Endorphins also lead to feelings of euphoria and happiness.

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey explains this concept in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He says: "Physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing and able to learn."

How can we harness this process? Exercise primes the brain for mental performance. If you have an important thinking-related task to do during the day – a presentation, a major meeting or a test – take 15 to 20 minutes to do some light exercise in the hour before the event. This exercise will increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and improve your mental performance.

Exercise also improves health at any age. It's never too late to start exercising. By improving cardiovascular health, you can decrease your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Your brain also benefits whenever you exercise. In a six-year study of more than 1,700 people age 65 and older, researchers at the University of Washington in Tacoma found that those who exercised three times a week had a 32 per cent lower risk of dementia than those who were sedentary.

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Another small study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that as little as 20 minutes of yoga can help improve brain power. "It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout," lead author Neha Gothe said, according to PsyBlog.

The key is to make exercise part of your daily routine. Not only for your body – but for your mind as well.

Dr. Greg Wells is an assistant professor in kinesiology at the University of Toronto and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children. He is a health and high performance expert who inspires better living through better nutrition and better fitness. You can follow him on Twitter at @drgregwells.

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