Week nine: Battling brain fog

Abstract purple smoke hookah on a black background.

You walk into a room and stand there, hands on hips, looking around and racking your brain in an effort to remember what on earth you went in there to get.  You write lists on sticky notes only to forget where you stuck them.  Here’s a really good one – you search in vain for the cloth you were just using a couple of minutes ago to wash dishes but it has vanished into thin air.  Or so you thought.  Two days later you open the freezer for something and there it is, the Houdini dish cloth, frozen stiff as a board.  What, I’m the only one that has happened to?!

Long to-do lists and only a tiny bit of time to check each one as done will cause us to be forgetful as we try to juggle too many things at one time.  But sometimes does it seem to happen a little more frequently and you begin to worry about just how often the brain fog occurs?

Believe it or not, exercise can help you win the brain fog battle.  Yep, you read correctly, plain old exercise and not a magic supplement or high-powered super food for the brain.  The biggest bonus your brain gets from exercise is that it can help to reduce your chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s in later years.

Did you get that?  Let me say it again:

The biggest bonus your brain gets from exercise is that it can help to reduce your chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s in later years.

One of the main reasons I exercise, other than the obvious to be physically fit, is to lower my chances of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments that can come from neglecting my body with bad nutrition and lack of exercise.  One scenario I want to avoid in the future is to have to rely on someone to take care of me because of health issues.  When I studied how exercising can improve mental acuity and significantly decrease chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s, I was sold.

Skeptical?  Let me explain.

When you exercise aerobically, the kind that gets your heart pumping and sweat glands working, you send hormones rushing into your brain.  When the hormones enter your brain they mix with a chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which your brain has to have to make new cells and process information.  In your brain, BDNF not only preserves existing brain cells, it also activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons, thereby making your brain grow larger.

BDNF is also found in your body’s neuromuscular system, and protects your neuromotors from deterioration.  Basically, neuromotos are what control the effects of nerve impulses on your muscles, thereby controlling any movement you make, such as walking, breathing, swallowing, talking, etc.  Think of them as the motor to a car.  When the motor is in good shape, getting where you want to go is a breeze.  If the motor isn’t in good shape or doesn’t work, the car will not run smoothly or not at all.  When the neuro-motors deteriorate with age, your muscles begin to atrophy.  Since BDNF is actively involved in both your muscles and your brain, it explains why aerobic exercise can have such a beneficial impact on your brain tissue. It literally helps prevent, and sometimes even reverse, brain decay as much as it prevents and reverses age-related muscle decay.

Another benefit to exercise is that it prevents age-related shrinkage of your brain, preserving both gray and white matter, which prevents the deterioration of your brain’s thinking and memory skills.

Still another way the brain benefits from exercise is that aerobic activity causes the area of the brain involved in memory and learning, the hippocampus, to become larger.  When the hippocampus increases in volume, this changes the brain function in a way that protects memory.

Kirk Erickson, Ph.D., conducted a study to confirm these findings.  In the study, seniors aged 60 to 80 who walked 30 to 45 minutes, three days per week for one year, increased the volume of their hippocampus by two percent as compared to the typical person of the same age range who loses one to three percent per year (www.pnas.org/content/108/7/3017.full).

Several other studies have been done to examine the how physical exercise affects memory and thinking later in life.  Combining the results of 11 studies shows that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 30 percent. Specifically for Alzheimer’s Disease, the risk was reduced by 45 percent (www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=2211&pageNumber=6)

Who needs more convincing than that?

No matter what age you are, start exercising!  You don’t have to become a runner or an aerobics addict.  Most of the research conducted has used walking as the form of exercise, but it can also include things like tennis, dancing, taking the stairs, anything that gets your heart rate up and a causes a light sweat.  If you’re out of shape, start with just a few minutes of any aerobic activity that you enjoy and build up to 30 minutes of moderate intensity five days per week.

You don’t have to walk around in a brain fog.  Exercise is not only good for your body, it’s just as good for your brain.  It will not only help you to stay focused and think clearer today, it may just help prevent more serious issues down the road.

Week eight: The blue screen effect

Music during exercising is a great helper

Summer is definitely in full swing!  I know that not only by the calendar, but it also hits me hard as soon as I step outside.  In my neck of the woods, summer translates into heat, soaring dew points and intense, suffocating humidity.  When the dew point and humidity is high, it’s impossible to cool off outside.  Many of us will adjust our exercise regimens from outdoor activities to inside ones, such as treadmills, stationary bikes and ellipticals.

Whether you’re exercising at home or in the gym, it has become popular in recent years to watch television programs or movies while working out.  Most gyms have several televisions mounted and playing in workout areas, and it’s not uncommon to see people with tablets resting stationary equipment monitors, earphones in their ears, watching the device while working out.  There’s no harm in that, right?

Umm, not necessarily.  There are drawbacks to exercising and catching up on the latest episodes of your favorite reality show, especially if you have specific fitness goals besides maintaining your current fitness status quo.  I call it the blue screen effect, coming from childhood memories of The Twilight Zone and bug-eyed children in front of the television set, oblivious to their surroundings.  If you’re old enough to remember The Twilight Zone, yes, it was in black and white but my phrase is updated to fit today’s world.  Most electronic devices are basically blue screens, and the word twilight does make you think of blue, doesn’t it?

Okay, never mind trying to explain how my mind works, back to our regularly scheduled program!

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of tuning in and focusing on a blue screen while working out, then you can decide what’s best for you.


The Pros

  • Distraction.  Watching programs or movies while on the treadmill or other stationary equipment can keep you from getting bored and helps the exercise time to go by faster.  It also distracts you from any discomfort, such as normal muscle burn, helping you to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer time.
  • It helps you to exercise.  If it’s the only thing that will get you to exercise, then do it.  A lower-intensity workout is better than no workout at all.  If you pair screen time with exercise it may possibly decrease the amount of time you spend sitting on the couch where the only thing you move is your remote hand.
  • You’re burning calories.  Walking on a treadmill during a one-hour episode at 4 mph (15-minute miles) of your favorite show will burn approximately 150 calories.  However, it has to be a steady pace with no commercial breaks!


The Cons

  • Distraction.  Yes, while distraction is on the good list, it’s also on the not-so-good list.  If you’re engrossed in a movie while working out, you’re probably not paying attention to your level of intensity and you slow down or slack off.  If your goal is to just be more active, then you’re not worried about intensity.  However, if your goals are to increase your current level of fitness or to lose weight, it’s not a good idea to focus on anything other than your workout.  Opt for upbeat, high-energy music instead.
  • Increased chance of injuries. If you’re concentrating on what you’re watching instead of your surroundings, you may not notice a shoelace that’s untied or that your water bottle is about to turn over.  Even if these potential hazards don’t exist, when you’re watching a video while working out your head is bent forward and down, creating an arch in your neck called a hyperflexion, which can cause neck strain and soft-tissue injury.  Even with simple walking the proper form of head straight, eyes forward and square shoulders is extremely important not only for an effective workout but also to prevent injury.
  • You become dependent on it. You may find yourself not exercising outside when the weather is nice, if you’re in a different location (such as on vacation) and a television is not available or you don’t have your electronic device with you.  Try not to be dependent on a movie to distract or motivate you to work out.
  • You don’t get the mental benefits. After a stressful day, exercise can help to clear your mind of the events of the day and lower your stress level. If you’re not distracted you can see issues and problems more clearly and make better decisions regarding them.  If you’re focused on a screen, you’ll lose the benefit of allowing exercise to give you a clear train of thought.
  • It’s great one-on-one time with God. Exercise time is a great opportunity to spend quality time with God in praise and worship (for being healthy enough to exercise), talk to Him about problems and concerns, pray for others or to simply be silent and allow Him to take control of your thoughts.  I usually hear God’s voice and can discern His will much more clearly while jogging than at any other time.  It’s a great time to clear your head of all the distractions of the world and allow Him in.



The Bottom Line

When weighing the pros and cons, watching a program or movie on television or an electronic device, the blue screen effect most likely diminishes the benefits of your workout and increases the risks of injury.  Listening to high-energy music is definitely a better option and will distract you from boredom while at the same time encouraging you to keep up the pace and get a better workout.

However, if you’re just flat-out not going to work out unless you have something to watch and are a blue-screen devotee, it’s better to watch something while working out than not exercising at all.  Make a mental note before starting to pay close attention to your form, surroundings and level of intensity.  If necessary, set an alarm for every five minutes as a reminder to refocus on your exercise.  Choose to watch a comedy or action movie, which may help you to keep your energy level up vs. a drama or news channel.