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How focusing on your brain can benefit your entire body

Whether it’s going on a health kick to lose weight or starting an exercise regime to get fitter, health goals are something most of us have made at one point or another to improve our overall wellbeing and boost our confidence.

What many don’t realise, however, is that prioritising brain health through lifestyle changes can also have a knock-on effect that benefits many other aspects of our health.

“Brain health is incredibly important to our overall quality of life,” Associate Professor Michael Woodward, Director of Aged Care Research and Memory Clinic at Austin Health, says. “If we have a problem with our thinking or other brain functions, it certainly has a negative effect on our quality of life.”

One way people can prioritise brain health and consequently their overall health is through diet. Foods such as leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, berries, onions and garlic contain antioxidants that can preserve brain cells, which is key in delaying cognitive decline. They can also help fight other major diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

In the seafood department, omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, cod and tuna have been shown to have positive effects on cognition, but can also contribute to the health of brain tissue and eye retina, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, stabilise blood sugars and reduce symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

And if you’re partial to eggs on toast for breakfast you’ll be pleased to know both eggs and wholegrains are packed with B-vitamins, which are good for your brain and other areas of your health. Likewise, legumes, seeds and citrus fruits are all rich in vitamin B, which can play a role in preventing cognitive decline and dementia but also in reducing an array of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

“It does seem to be combinations of foods, rather than individual, single nutrients that has the best effect,” Woodward says.

Many foods containing antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and B-vitamins are already found in the Mediterranean diet – a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and cereals but low in dairy, meat, sugar and saturated fat – that has been shown to help both brain and physical health.

“The Mediterranean diet as a whole has been associated with improved cognition or at least a lower risk of declining cognition,” Woodward explains.

There’s also evidence that following the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of frailty in older people which in turn, reduces the risk of falls, fractures and hospitalisation. In postmenopausal women specifically, it’s also been shown to strengthen bone and muscle mass, while also lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Just as diet is important, exercise is also one of the best ways to benefit brain health and overall health.

However, this doesn’t mean you have to slog it out at the gym for hours each day. Aerobic exercises such as brisk walking, dancing, water aerobics, tennis or bike riding can significantly enhance cognitive abilities for people over 50, while resistance training, which uses an external force such as dumbbells or resistance bands, have been shown to have a pronounced effect on executive function – the part of our brain that controls behaviour — and memory.

“There’s evidence that there are neural stem cells in the brain, particularly in the memory part of the brain, the hippocampus, and the theory is that exercise helps to stimulate those cells to replace damaged cells,” Woodward says. “Exercise probably also improves blood flow to the brain and has other effects.”

Exercise can also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and helps reduce belly fat, which has been associated with certain kinds of cancer. It also reduces visceral fat and liver fat – which contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

So how much exercise do you need to be doing to see these benefits? Woodward advises undertaking at least 25 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five times a week to start seeing results.

In the end, it’s all about balance and putting your health at the forefront of your mind to optimise your overall wellbeing.

Do you eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly to keep your mind sharp?

Content created in consultation with dementia expert Associate Professor Michael Woodward.