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With gyms closed and team sports on hold, it’s easy to become bored or stuck in an exercise rut amid COVID-19. Trying new moves can give your brain and body a much-needed health boost.

As states begin to ease COVID-19 restrictions and we approach the end of full-scale lockdowns, some of my clients have complained of a mental sluggishness. Many (myself included) admit that hours of Netflix and snacking have taken their toll.

Brains, like bodies, need new challenges to grow and adapt. It’s why I have been tasking my clients with more complex workouts; daring them to enrol in online classes that challenge their minds as much as their muscles. Many find new enthusiasm when they slip on dance shoes, roll out their yoga mats or glove up. This is not just a fun and healthy way to move – there are neuroscientific benefits behind exercise that demands mind-body precision.

Just as muscles diminish and bones become frail if we do not keep using them in old age, your brain can deteriorate with lack of use. Most people experience decreases in brain volume (grey matter), and the weakening of neurotransmitter systems that communicate information (white matter) as they age. While we can’t completely avoid these changes, evidence suggests we can delay their onset. 

What types of exercise train your brain?

A 2015 study by researchers at New York’s Institute of Technology found the complex physical activity of martial art training had significant benefits for brain function when compared to walking. While an hour of either activity improved attention and processing speed, “only the martial art training improved the higher cognitive process of executive function skills”. These higher-order skills are mostly utilised in our ability to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks. 

Another study, conducted in 2017 by researchers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, showed that the martial arts exercise of Tai Chi “imposed greater cognitive involvement because of its need for concentration, focus, imagery, breathing control, specified movement patterns and mindfulness” – skills which are not required in a typical aerobic or weight training session.

If martial arts aren’t your thing, there are less aggressive ways to train your mind and body. Researchers from Brazil’s Federal University of Sergipe in 2019 conducted brain scans on dancers and discovered that regular dance practice causes “significant changes on improving memory, attention, body balance, psychosocial parameters and altered peripheral neurotrophic factor”.  They also observed surprising structural changes in the brain, including a growth in the grey and white brain matter. In other words, the brain scans showed that dancing could actually grow your brain size. 

Prevention and intervention of diseases

Exercises like dancing, martial arts, boxing and yoga increase “cognitive reserve” – a measure of your brain’s resilience to damage that lowers the risk of diseases like dementia. In fact, dancing activities have been used as an intervention for many neurological disorders in the past, such as strokes and Parkinson’s disease. It can also alleviate symptoms of depression. 

How to brain-boost your home workouts

Incorporate full-body exercises that require coordinated movement. Try moving both arms, but in opposite directions while squatting. Master moves like Turkish get-ups and spiderman push-ups.

Zara’s brain strain workout challenge

4 x rounds for time:

200m run

20m bear crawl (10m forwards and 10m backwards) 

20 x walking lunge + bicep curl with each step

26 x bear crawl shoulder taps 

6 x Turkish get-ups (3 each side)

20 x Spiderman push-ups

Zara Michales
is a professional group and personal trainer. She has worked in gyms around Sydney for the past five years and is currently based in Venice, California.