Brain health

Regular exercise improves brain health and stimulates creativity

TV commercial viewers in the late 1980s might recall a shapely Cher standing toned against moody blue lighting, artful smoke and wind machines tousling her raven hair as she touted a fitness gym she was representing.

“If it came in a bottle, everybody would have a great body,” the pop icon boasted.

Turns out the superstar had a point — even if some of her fashion choices, like the spidery outfit she wore to the 1988 Oscars, could make fans wonder what she’s thinking.

“We need people to know that right now we don’t have any medications where, if you take this you’ll have good brain health,” said Dr. Po-Heng Tsai, a neurologist for Cleveland Clinic Florida. “It’s important to get the message out there that people need to be active or physically fit because it’s not only good for the body but for the mind.”

Exercising regularly is linked with creative thinking, brain health and cognition, according to a study published in December in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience and Boston University School of Medicine. People in the study who exercised regularly outperformed those who did not, both in straightforward cognitive thinking, as well as flexible creative thinking. Researchers at Cleveland Clinic Florida have used this information to tout what they already knew through observational studies.

Getting the heart rate pumping is good for the brain.

“People who exercise tend to do better cognitively,” Tsai said. “People who had dementia tend not to decline as fast, and this study was interesting because it looked at creativity and not just cognition. That’s an interesting perspective, that creativity can benefit from exercise.”

There are two types of thinking: convergent and divergent.

Divergent means the brain is able to visualize a task and conjure numerous ideas on how to execute the task. For example, people are given a pen. The most logical use, the convergent mode, is to write with that pen. Creative thinking, which comes out of the divergent process, would think of writing with the pen but also using the pen as a doorstop or as one half of a chopstick or as a weapon. “How many different uses can a person generate? That’s a measure of creativity,” Tsai said.

Convergent thinking relies more on executive control in the frontal part of the brain, explained Tsai.

“People who exercise have better executive frontal control. For divergent thinking, you want to loosen executive control to allow as many ideas to pop up as possible,” Tsai said. Think of exercise as a lubricant that opens the gates in all areas of the brain.

The reason, researchers believe, is that exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain and thus more critical oxygen reaches the muscle.

The brain, more than any other organ in the body, is reliant on constant sources of oxygen. “Muscles can survive without oxygen for a little bit, they have other ways of obtaining nutrients. The brain has to depend on oxygen, and when you get the heart rate going and the blood flowing and oxygen to the brain, it makes sense because that’s what the brain thrives on,” Tsai said.

One does not have to train like an Olympian to benefit from this brain boost. Regular exercise can mean three times a week of 30-minute durations. Moderate intensity to get the heart rate going. As you improve, you can increase your workouts. Mix cardiovascular exercises — such as walking, swimming and aerobics — with weight training to best tone muscle and burn calories.

Also, Tsai counsels his patients at Cleveland to keep the mind engaged as another plus for people with memory issues.

“Anything you do to keep the mind going,” he said. “Don’t just sit there and watch TV. Do puzzles. Read. Crochet. Keep the mind engaged.”

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