The Truth Behind Negative Calorie Foods

Imagine a food that actually burns more calories than it provides, that helps you lose weight just by eating it. The idea sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? These so-called negative calorie foods have been promoted by many fitness books and diet plans. But do they work? Is there science to back this claim or is it just another fitness myth?

The Theory

Chewing and digesting food, as with all bodily functions, burns calories without us ever noticing. Certain foods, like celery or grapefruit, are high in dietary fiber but extremely low in calories, leading to the conclusion that they burn more calories than they actually provide.

The Reality

According to the Mayo Clinic, about five to 10 percent of your daily caloric expenditure goes toward chewing, breaking down and storing your food. The low-calorie options that populate the negative calorie food lists found all over the Internet do, in fact require energy to digest.

So, in theory at least, negative calorie foods exist. In practice, however, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that a single food requires more calories to break down than it provides.

The real problem with this diet philosophy comes in the application. When people read that grapefruit is a negative calorie food that will burn calories for you, they react in one of two ways: Either they eat nothing but these negative calories foods, or they add it to their regular diets to try to counteract the calories from other foods.

Nothing In, Nothing Out

The first approach, loading your diet with almost exclusively negative calorie foods will absolutely make you lose weight. But this loss will be rapid and unhealthy. Diets that consist mainly of these foods are severely deficient in both total calories and vital nutrients.

These low-calorie, starvation diets can not be sustained for long periods of time and can even backfire. When your body enters starvation mood, your metabolism will slow down and actually start fighting to keep you alive by storing fat for energy.

You may also start to lose muscle mass, since that will be broken down for fuel as well.

Too Much of a Good Thing

The other application of negative calorie foods, tacking them onto otherwise unhealthy meals, isn’t much better. A 2010 study from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management tested people’s perception of calories of meals both with and without a healthy side.

In one of the tests, subjects were asked to guess the calorie content of a bowl of chili. They estimated the value at about 699 calories. When the chili was served with a side of green beans, though, they placed the meal at 656 calories. In truth, the side of green beans probably didn’t add many more calories, but it certain didn’t detract any either.

The belief in negative calorie foods and the practice that it leads to could actually cause you to gain weight by ingesting more calories than you realize.

The bottom line: negative calorie foods as a diet philosophy is about as empty as it sounds. You won’t do yourself any good by trying to follow it, and you’re likely to do yourself some harm.

Do you have any experience with negative calorie foods? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Sources

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/negative-calorie-foods/AN02040

http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/expert-insight-article/3/695/do-negative-calorie-foods-really-exist/

http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/News_Articles/2010/the-dieters-paradox.aspx

How to Choose a Martial Arts School

Whether your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, relieve stress or learn a new skill, martial arts lessons may be the answer for you. Most classes provide a full-spectrum wellness experience. The only trouble is, for most parts of the Western world, you have so many options it’s hard to know where to take lessons. Narrow it down to the area’s best by keeping a few things in mind.

Choosing a Style

Although many people think this is the first thing you should consider, it’s better to leave this alone unless you’re already passionately interested in a specific kind of martial art. The overwhelming majority of styles teach the same concepts, just with different techniques and drills to express them. There is no such thing as a “superior” style, just superior instructors. By limiting which kind of martial art you’re willing to study, you might eliminate the best program in your area before beginning your search.

Three Kinds of School

Martial arts programs come in all shapes and sizes, but typically fall into three broad categories.

Individual classes, such as those offered through a community college, at a church, or in a parks and recreation department. These are typically run by a single instructor with a full-time job who teaches for the love of teaching. Individual classes tend to be cheaper than other options, but have a more restricted schedule.

Mom and pop dojos are in a single storefront, typically have just one space for classes, and focus on a single style. This is what most people picture when they imagine taking classes. They usually have a schedule of classes in the evenings, and some limited weekend classes. They’re more expensive than individual classes.

Superschools have hundreds of students, multiple training rooms, and frequently host a large staff of instructors and administrative help. Schedules tend to be wide and accessible, and the facilities often boast other features like a pro shop or even a coffee bar. These are usually the most expensive option, but some will have inexpensive options for people willing to accept a limited schedule. A few even host individual class-style options from outside teachers.

As with the style of martial art, no category is better or worse than the others. It’s more a matter of which kind of program fits your schedule, and which kind of training community works best with how you like to learn.

The Intro Program

The overwhelming majority of schools offer some kind of introductory offer. It’s often structured as a small number of lessons at a low price, free lessons with purchase of a training uniform, or a free uniform with purchase of some lessons. Regardless of how it’s structured, you should take the intro offer at two or three schools in your area to determine which you like best. While in the intro program, pay close attention to a few specifics:

Safety – learn the school’s culture about safety. Is there a visible first aid kit? Are instructors certified in first aid? Do they wear the proper equipment, or “wing it?” Proper equipment may include head gear, sparring gloves, groin guards and mouth gear. Additional safety gear can be found with a quick Internet search.

Cleanliness – a dojo that smells of sweat with a nasty restroom doesn’t mean the instructor is incompetent, but it does mean they don’t pay attention to the details.

Other Students – take time to chat with other students, and parents of child students. See if they rave about the program, or have complaints. Listen to the complaints and decide if they’re important to you.

Follow-Through — ask for information about something staff can’t get you right away, such as pricing on a training video. Find out how long it takes for them to get back to you with the information.

If a school doesn’t offer an introductory program, be wary. If they insist you sign a long-term contract without an intro, run away.

Final Decision

After you’ve tried the intros at a few schools, simply go with the program where you feel the most at home. To the extent you can afford it, try not to let tuition make the final decision here. If you stick with your lessons, you’re in for a life-long relationship with the teachers at that school. It’s well worth the difference in price.

8 Alternative Snacks

Between-meal snacking is either forbidden or essential, depending on which diet you choose to follow. Either way, most quick and available snack foods are decidedly weight-loss and nutrition unfriendly. Try these eight alternatives for your late morning, afternoon and after dinner munchies.

1. Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts (Gorp)

There’s a reason hikers and campers make this a staple of their food supply. Even small portions of unsalted peanuts and raisins combine to give you protein, fat and carbohydrates in a healthy balance that takes the edge off. It’s pretty calorie-dense, so stick to just a handful for a serving.

2. Celery and Peanut Butter

Lucky people might recall this one from their school lunch boxes. Simply take a stick of celery and spread unsalted peanut butter into the trough. The low-calorie celery combines with the fat and protein from the peanut butter with a fun texture. Some brave souls dab a little Tabasco sauce on top for spice.Fruits and Vegetables

3. Apples and Bananas (and Pears, and Oranges, and …)

No list of healthy snack options would be complete without mentioning fruits. They’re as yummy as prepackaged snack cakes, and packed with a variety of important vitamins and micronutrients. For snacks, the best choices are durable and easy to carry around. Apples are a great choice. Grapes, less so.

4. Popcorn

If you’re one of those people who eats just to have something to do with your hands, popcorn may be your solution. Air-popped, unsalted, unbuttered popcorn carries lots of fiber and very few calories for the volume. Munch to your tummy’s content.

5. Veggie Sticks

Vegetables have all the health advantages of fruits, but tend to have fewer calories and more nutrition per ounce. You can cut up some broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, or bell pepper and put them in a zipper bag for portable, healthy snacking.

6. Baked Pita Chips

If you’re a serial potato chip killer, there’s something to that crunch that other snacks simply can’t replace. Pick up some pitas at your local health food market and bake them crisp in the oven. You’ll get all the crunch with none of the salt or chemical preservatives. You can buy pita chips pre-baked, but check the label for the salt and chemicals you’re trying to avoid.

7. Boiled Egg

Eggs are full of protein, which is the key nutrient in curbing hunger for the next several hours. Boil your eggs while going through your morning routine, then plop them in with your lunch for a quick-and-easy alternative to that midmorning coffee run.

8. Green Tea

Tea bags are easy to stash in your purse, briefcase or desk drawer. Hot water is available almost anywhere. Drinking unsweetened tea fills your tummy to stave off hunger without loading in the calories of another snack option. Really any tea works for this, but green tea in particular has been recently linked with a variety of other health benefits.

Like your regular meals, portion control is key to healthy snacking. If you gorge yourself on fruits and peanut butter celery, your results won’t be any better than if you’d eaten a candy bar. Remember, when it comes to diet, moderation is the only thing it’s smart to be extreme about.

Sources

http://urbanext.illinois.edu/foodforthought/0304.html

http://www.amazon.com/Eat-Drink-Be-Healthy-Harvard/dp/0743266420/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1360346111&sr=8-1&keywords=eat+drink+and+be+health

http://www.superfoodsrx.com/

Revive Your Workout with Plyometrics

Do you want to revive a tired workout regimen? Get a sleeker physique? Challenge your body in a new way?

Sticking with a regular workout routine is great for your mind and body. But after weeks or months of doing the same exercise routine day in and day out, it’s common to stop seeing results, get bored, lose motivation and want to try something new. That’s where plyometric exercises come in.

The Lowdown on Plyometrics

Plyometrics, or “jump training” exercises, are explosive bounding exercises. Plyometrics mimic the motions used in sports such as skiing, football, volleyball, tennis and boxing. Plyometrics were first used by Eastern European Olympic athletes in the 1970s, and nowadays professional athletes and gym rats alike do plyometrics to get more out of their workouts.

Plyometrics involves rapidly stretching a muscle and then quickly shortening it. Moves focus on controlled impact and maximum power. Experts say regularly doing plyometrics can improve leg strength, balance, agility, acceleration, vertical jump performance and bone density.

So how does this help the everyday exerciser? Plyometric exercises push you out of your comfort zone and make your workout more challenging. This can lead to:

·         Weight loss. Plyometric exercises get your heart rate way up, and then it comes back down between sets. This type of training is known to torch calories and burn fat.

·         Improved muscle tone. These powerful movements strengthen and tone your muscles.

·         Better athletic performance. Plyometrics can help competitive runners, cyclists and tennis players gain speed.

What’s more, experts say muscles adapt to more challenging workouts quickly, which means you’ll see results of plyometric training in no time.

Examples of Plyometric Exercises

A major perk of plyometrics is that you don’t need much equipment, if any. You can do most moves using your own bodyweight. Try these plyometric exercises:

·         Burpees. Stand up straight, then bend your knees and touch your hands flat to the ground. Pop your legs back and get into a push-up position. Then shoot your feet back in by your hands and do a vertical jump with your arms extended. Repeat.

·         Skier jumps. Stand up straight with your knees slightly bent. Jump as far as you can to the left, then as far as you can back to the right, and repeat. Be mindful to land softly with your knees bent to reduce your risk of injury.

·         Mountain climbers. Get into a push-up position with your arms extended (be careful not to lock your elbows). Keep your neck, back, and hips straight and then alternate bringing your knees into your chest quickly.

·         Jumpees. Stand in a squat position with your feet hip-width apart. Jump up as high as you can, land softly, return to the squat position, and repeat.

·         Box jumps. Find a sturdy box or bench that is about two feet off the ground. Jump from the ground up onto the box, landing with both feet together. Step carefully back down and repeat.

Add plyometrics to your exercise routine two to three times per week for maximum results.

Since plyometric exercises are so intense, it’s important to know that they aren’t for everyone. If you’re new to exercise, have bone or joint problems, or are prone to athletic injuries, plyometrics may not be for you.

Sources:

http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/fitness-fact-article/2658/plyometrics-controlled-impact-maximum-power/

http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/guide/plyometrics-exercise-workouts

http://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/jumping-workout

Tricks For Sticking With That Resolution

Some people like to joke about giving up their New Year Resolutions for Lent. It’s good for a laugh, but also illustrates how many people give up on their goals as quarter one draws to a close. For some, it’s harder than they thought it would be. For others, a long-term grind makes the whole thing too tedious to carry out to fruition.

If you’re having trouble sticking to your resolution as the weather grows warmer, try one of these tricks from productivity experts to push through and keep that promise you made to yourself.

1. Insert Time Limits

Resolutions with no clear beginning or end are destined for failure. Human beings are motivated by success and benchmarks. Try putting your resolution into a time frame and see how much better you feel about it.

Bad Example: “I will never eat ice cream again.”

Good Example: “I won’t eat ice cream until I reach my goal weight.”

2. Get Back on the Horse

If you’ve already quit on your resolution, call a Mulligan and start again. Forgive yourself for your earlier mistake and start fresh tomorrow morning. If you mess up again in three weeks, get back on the horse at the beginning of week four. A little progress beats no progress at all.

Bad Example: “I give up. I’ll never run a 10-minute mile.”

Good Example: “A 10:30 mile is better than no mile at all, and we’ll see if we can’t hit 10:15 by Spring Break.”

3. Write it Down

You’re always excited about your resolution on January 1, but it slides into the back of your attention as the weeks roll by. Write your goal down someplace you’ll see it often, like a post-it on your monitor, a note on your steering wheel, or in dry-erase marker on your bathroom mirror.

Bad Example: Leaving the bar napkin you wrote the resolution on in your junk drawer.

Good Example: Setting a calendar alarm on your phone to call you every morning and remind you. 

4. Bribe Yourself

Bribery gets a bad rap. Your boss bribes you to come to work. You teachers bribed you with good grades. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bribing yourself for small successes with your resolution. Just be sensible with the reward.

Bad Example: “If I make it through the morning without smoking, I get a cigarette at my lunch break.” 

Good Example: “I’ll put the money I would spend on cigarettes in a jar, then splurge on a shopping spree whenever it hits $200.”

5. Find a Buddy

Few things improve your accountability like having to share your progress with somebody you care about. Find a workout partner for exercise resolutions, a weigh-in buddy for weight loss resolutions, or just a mutual coach to demand progress reports.

Bad Example: Complaining to friends about how you never achieve your resolutions.

Good Example: Meeting weekly with a friend to discuss results and strategies. 

6. Narrow the Focus

Some resolutions are simply too broad, or too sweeping, to be reasonably accomplished. If you find you’re frustrated with your resolution because you feel you never make headway, this could be why. Reassess the goal and then rephrase it in a more manageable format.

Bad Example: “This year I resolve to lose weight.”

Good Example: “I’ll lose 12 pounds this year, at a rate of one pound a month.”

Readers, what resolutions have you dropped in your life? What do you think would have happened if you’d applied one of these strategies?

Sources

http://michaelhyatt.com/5-reasons-why-you-should-commit-your-goals-to-writing.html

“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey

http://www.ymcaboston.org/blog/5-tips-to-stick-to-your-new-years-resolution

http://lifehacker.com/5971803/top-10-strategies-for-making-your-new-years-resolution-stick

Barefoot Running and Marathon Training

Ask Coach Jenny

Q: Is starting barefoot running training a bad idea when combined with marathon training with existing trainers?

A: It’s not that it’s a bad idea as much as it is an aggressive one. When training for a marathon, the training plan consistently builds in mileage, intensity and volume through the season.   Traditional marathon plans cut back every two to three weeks to allow the body and mind time to recover and adapt to the demands of the training progression. The balance of the building and cutback weeks balance the stress on the body and optimally prepare you to tackle 26.2 miles.

When you transition to barefoot running or minimalist shoes, it is very much like an entirely new sport in that it uses different muscles to move you forward. It also takes a considerable amount of time to build up the strength, flexibility and the skin’s resistance to running without shoes.

If you’re like most, your feet have been living the high life in your supportive shoes. That makes life convenient in that we don’t need to focus all that much on where we step nor do we need to have strength and mobility to walk or run. The shoes do much of the work for us.   Going from a supportive shoe environment to barefoot running is a significant change and challenge for your body. It requires the time and patience to build the strength, flexibility and sensory skills to move with less under foot. This can be easily demonstrated by taking the one-legged stance test.

Kick off your shoes and socks and stand on one foot for one minute. Unless you’ve been living barefoot, you’ll begin to feel muscles you never knew you had firing to stabilize your body. It’s not about weakness – it’s about our body adapting to its natural shoe habitat.

If I were coaching you, I’d encourage you to wear your go-to running shoes while marathoning and use the season to supplement with foot strengthening exercises that will help you make the transition post season. Here are three such exercises:

Single Leg Stance:

  • Stand up with your feet hip width apart.
  • Keep your arms out to your sides for balance.
  •  Lift your left leg a few inches off the floor and hold for 30-60 seconds.
  • Engage your hip muscles to create a long, neutral line up your body. If this is confusing – try letting your hip relax out to the side and then tighten and contract it to align it under your shoulders – this is also another great exercise called hip huggers.
  • Repeat two to four times on each side. You will feel all the muscles in your foot, ankle and hip fatiguing in seconds!
  • When this is easy, progress to performing barefoot. When that gets easy, stand barefoot on a towel, pillow or pad to further challenge the muscles and balance. If you get to SuperStar status, close your eyes (very hard).

Toe Lifts:

  • Stand barefoot with your feet shoulder width apart. Stand in a tall neutral position, toes facing forward and look down at your piggies (toes). Balance your weight across the ball of your foot and heel.
  • Lift all ten toes up and then slowly lower one toe at a time from pinky (the one that went “wee wee wee” all the way home) to big toe. If this is a challenge, sit and use your fingers to assist until you gain the dexterity.
  • Repeat 10-15 times per foot once and progress in time to two to three sets of 15.
  • When this gets easy, progress to lifting each toe up and then down one at a time.

Heel and Toe Raise:

  • Stand barefoot with your feet hip width apart and your weight evenly distributed over feet.
  • Raise up on your balls of your feet and hold for one to two seconds and lower.
  • Raise up your toes and hold for one to two seconds and lower.
  • Repeat heel and toe raises for 30 seconds.
  • Newbies begin with one set and as your feet grow stronger increase to two to three sets at 45-60 seconds.
  • When that becomes easy, brag about it to your family and friends and up the ante by performing this exercise on a stability pad, folded towel or pillow.

You can also build up your foot and lower leg strength along the way without going barefoot quite yet. For instance, once you’ve built up your foot strength and mobility with the exercises above, you can weave in the following activities to continue to transition towards running with less underfoot.

  • Walk around your house barefoot for short periods of time (five to 10 minutes) every other day. This builds your sensory skills as well as foot strength and is a great first step in going barefoot. As you gain strength, build on the amount of time by five to 10 minutes every two weeks and then do so daily. Let your body be your guide as everyone’s tolerance varies.
  • If you’re a gym person, use the elliptical machine with minimalist shoes or socks (if the gym allows). This will further improve your foot strength but without the impact of running.
  • Walk before you run – continue your journey to less by walking in short periods of time (one to two minutes) on a treadmill before or after your training runs.

Going barefoot doesn’t necessarily have to be all or nothing, and the truth is – a little goes a long way in improving your running form and strength and decreasing the risk for injuries. As you build into this slowly, you may find that supplementing barefoot exercises and drills to be the perfect complement to your running program. You may also want to experiment with more in running drills or workouts. The important thing is that you go especially slowly, avoid doing much of this during your marathon training, build and dedicate the time and effort it requires to make the change to running with less.

Do you have a question for Coach Jenny? Submit your question here.

Healthy Body, Healthy Brain

Anybody who has kept up with an exercise routine for even just a few weeks has felt the restorative effects of a good workout. How many times has a run helped you clear your head or how often have you felt relieved of stress after hitting the gym?

Research is emerging that helps to fully explain this connection, and is suggesting that these  benefits may be longer lasting than previously thought. It’s possible that having an active lifestyle can not only strengthen your mind today, but also help protect your brain further down the line.

The Research

As we age, a number of detrimental changes occur in our brains. First, the levels of various vital chemicals and specialized cells decrease. This undermines the brain’s ability to repair itself and retain new information. Eventually the brain actually begins to shrink, which results in memory loss and dementia.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology explored the neurological effects of treadmill running on middle-aged mice. Like humans, the brains of mice begin to shrink in their middle years. The researchers found that the cardiovascular exercise not only increased the number of neural stem cells but that it also sped up their maturation into neural cells and increased the lifespan of those adult cells.

These findings were built on by a later study in the journal Neurology, which examined the connection between walking and the volume of grey matter in the human brain. The study showed that adults, with a mean age of 78, who walked between six and nine miles per week had more grey matter later in life than those who hadn’t been physically active. This finding suggests that that those older adults who were more physically active greatly reduced their risk of cognitive impairment.

Similar studies continue to be released, strengthening the case for exercise as a powerful preventative agent against age-related mental impairment.

Put It Into Practice

So with this in mind, what can you do to keep your brain functioning at full-speed?

The studies discussed above all used mild cardiovascular exercises, like walking, to produce the promising results and there is no evidence to suggest that more intense activity is more beneficial. In fact, physically exhausting yourself could also deplete your body’s fuel sources, including those used by the brain, and increase your risk of injury.

Select activities you enjoy, can do regularly and can sustain for more than 30 minutes at a time. This can include walking, participating in fun runs, or even working in your garden.

Investing in quality cardiovascular equipment will allow you to do this sort of brain-building exercise at home. Take time to research the best home elliptical machines since these will give you a highly effective workout with minimal risk of injury.

Activities that require complex motor movements such as golf, bowling and dancing are particularly useful. Not only do they get you up and moving but they build your fine motor skills and stimulate larger portions of the brain.

Have you experienced the mental benefits of physical exercise? Please share with us in the comments.

Sources

http://jap.physiology.org/content/105/5/1585

http://www.neurology.org/content/75/16/1415

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121022162647.htm

Chronic Fat and Why It Keeps Coming Back

For some people, it seems like fat just melts off and losing weight is a matter of deciding that they want to. For many others, unfortunately, it’s not such an easy process. Many feel like they struggle their entire lives in a constant battle to lose the fat and keep it off.

In fact, chronic obesity affects the lives of about 500 million adults and 43 million children younger than age five. Recent research has shed light on why it can be more difficult for these people to control their weight and what can be done about it.

The Study

A joint effort between the University of Michigan and the Argentina-based National Scientific and Technological Research Council (CONICET) led the study that was eventually published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Throughout the study, researchers controlled the genetic “switch” that controls hunger signals in the brain on mice. They also controlled the diet of the mice.

When the switch was activated to limit their appetite after the mice had completed weaning, they didn’t overeat and never became obese. Similarly, even if that switch was never turned on and their appetite was left un-manipulated, the mice maintained a healthy weight into adulthood, as long as their diet was controlled when they were pups.

The true revelation came, however, when the researchers overfed the pups. These mice never completely returned to a normal weight, even once the switch was flipped on, their diet was restricted and they were put on an exercise regimen.

The researchers concluded that, at some point in development, the metabolism of the overfed mice adapted to being obese and that simply became their new normal. Although no comparable studies have been conducted on humans, the basic principle remains the same.

What This Means For You

Statistics show that obese children are at a much higher risk of becoming obese adults and developing related health problems than children of a healthy weight. This could be a result of learned behaviors or the same metabolic reprogramming that was seen in the mice, or a combination of the two. More research is needed, however,to fully explain how this works and how it translates to the human metabolism.

Is It Hopeless?

So, if like many Americans, you ate a poor diet full of fast food and candy during your childhood, are you doomed to a lifetime of obesity?

No, you’re not. The struggle may be more difficult for you, but it is possible to reprogram your metabolism to a normal, healthy one capable of burning fat rather than storing it.

Diet and Exercise

The American Council on Exercise also recommends an occasional fast lasting about 24 hours to help restart your metabolism.  This time can be used to perform a sort of audit on your diet and help cleanse your system of unhealthy food. Just make sure that when you start eating again you go back to healthy foods and not junk out of desperation.

When it comes to exercise, incorporate moderate intensity interval training into your routine. Try running for 20 seconds and walking for 40 seconds. Do this for 10 minutes either as a stand alone workout or as part of a larger program. This type of exercise will force your body to burn fat for fuel, while not overloading your system by working out for too long.

Have you been able to reprogram your metabolism and control your weight? Please share your experience with us in the comments.

Sources

http://www.jci.org/articles/view/62543

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121024141635.htm

http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1735638,00.html

http://www.acefitness.org/blog/2239/do-detox-diets-work#comments

http://www.menshealth.com/weight-loss/reprogram-your-metabolism/page/4

Exercise for Better Grades

The myriad physical benefits of exercise are far from breaking news. What is surprising to many people, however, are the equally numerous mental benefits. In addition to the well-documented improvements in mood and stress reduction related to a decent workout, new research is beginning to reveal just how exercise can improve overall brain function. This is specifically useful information if you have school-aged children or are still in school yourself. Honestly, though, who couldn’t use a boost in brain power?

The Research

Brain function, referred to as cognitive function in more clinical circles, is the collective result of several factors. Memory, alertness, focus, comprehension and ability to execute motor commands are all involved. Incredibly, studies have shown that even moderate exercise can improve all of these aspects of brain function.

A review of the research in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, found that regular exercise affects the physical health of the brain. The levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and other hormones that control brain growth, are increased enough by exercise to have a measurable improvement on learning capacity and mental performance. Exercise also activates genes that control brain plasticity, or your ability to retain information and adapt to new situations. These findings have led to extensive research showing that exercise later in life can slow mental decline related to aging.

But the true test of these findings came from the real-world proving grounds of the public school system. At Naperville Central High School in Illinois, students who struggled with math and reading were scheduled for physical education class first thing in the morning. Bikes and balls are scattered throughout the classrooms and teachers plan physical activity into the lessons. When the school implemented these changes in 2010, reading scores drastically improved and math scores increased by 20 percent.

These results have been duplicated in other schools and colleges. In the adult world, offices that make room for exercise throughout the day experience an increase in productivity.

Helping Children With ADHD

There are over 2.5 million school-aged children in America diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), according to Science Daily. Although medication has proven to be effective in most cases of ADHD, many of these treatments are fairly new, leaving parents and doctors worrying about long-term side effects. Cost is also a concern when it comes to medication.

A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics offers exercise as a potential non-medical intervention, though. Children with ADHD, as well as those without the condition, scored better results on standardized tests and in games designed to test their ability to focus after exercising for 20 minutes.

Putting it into Practice

It’s interesting to note that, in the study discussed above, the children were only asked to walk at a brisk pace for 20 minutes. Long bouts of vigorous exercise aren’t necessary to achieve better brain function.

Most studies experimented with exercise in the mornings or immediately before academic testing, but this may not be possible for everyone all the time. A more workable idea may be to exercise when you can, but stick to your schedule. The regularity will also help you build self-discipline as a byproduct, which can be an important cognitive skill in many situations.

Be careful to start slowly and keep the activity to a moderate intensity, since working out too intensely can exhaust you mentally and be counterproductive.

Have you or your children experienced the mental benefits of regular exercise? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Sources

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/vigorous-exercise-linked-with-better-grades/

http://abcnews.go.com/WN/exercise-school-leads-learning/story?id=10371315#.UMX4FKyI7Sg

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223602021434

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121016132109.htm

http://fit.webmd.com/teen/move/article/exercise-boosts-brain