By Maura Kelly
Last week, scared silly about a speech I had to give, I rode my bike to the event, hoping it would calm my jitters. Luckily, it did that and a whole lot more: Cycling cleared my head so that I was able to remember the lecture word for word without notes. I gave the best talk of my life.
Turns out, that half-hour workout was the smartest pre-speech prep I could have done, according to a number of new studies showing that exercise strengthens the body and the mind. For instance, a recent finding from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reveals that people perform significantly better on memory tests if they take them shortly after doing 30 minutes of aerobics. "Learning, remembering, reasoning, alertness, and mood improve with fitness," says Patrick Hogan, DO, a neurologist with Puget Sound Neurology in Tacoma, Washington. "A physical workout is better than any medicine. It's the single most powerful thing you can do for your brain."
Add healthy eating to your stay-fit regimen and your mental power will skyrocket. Check out our get-smart plan for the lowdown on the best foods and moves for your noggin.
Your Mental-Fitness Game Plan
"Aim for 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity at least three days a week," Erickson says. "Anything that leaves you out of breath is a good choice," like biking, running, and using the elliptical. To make your workout even more challenging mentally and physically, do intervals, as in this cardio circuit from Johanna Subotovsky, a trainer at Equinox Fitness Clubs in New York City.
- Warm up with a brisk 4-minute walk.
- Jog at a steady pace for 10 minutes.
- For the next 6 minutes, alternate 1 minute of walking lunges with 1 minute of walking.
- Run at a fast pace for 5 minutes.
- Cool down with 5 minutes of brisk walking.
Food is the fuel that keeps your brain running, but noshing on the right stuff is key. "You need a huge variety of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients for maximum brain health," says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, a professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at UCLA. That means piling your plate with as many different fruits and vegetables as you can every day, including "berries and apples, because they contain a lot of vitamin C and flavonoids, both of which are powerful antioxidants that keep your brain cells in prime condition," Gomez-Pinilla says. Broccoli and spinach have more vitamins A, C, and E than most other veggies do. And fish is crucial because it's chock-full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which keep the membranes of brain cells strong. Be sure to eat every few hours to regulate your blood sugar. If it gets too low, you won't be able to think straight.
Hungry? Try our sample day's menu below -- it will help make you sharper by bedtime.
Power Meal: Breakfast
1 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1 sprinkle crunchy whole-grain cereal like Grape-Nuts or Kashi GoLean
1 big handful blueberries
1 cup coffee
Greek yogurt is high in protein, which provides a steady supply of energy, helping your brain stay charged all morning. Protein also increases levels of epinephrine and dopamine, two chemicals that make you more alert. The carbs in the cereal give you a dose of glucose, which gets you going. Blueberries are potent antioxidants that have been shown to spur brain-cell production and help improve memory. Caffeine, a stimulant, speeds up your brain and can boost memory and reasoning, research shows.
Power Meal: Lunch
1 ounce walnuts (about 14 halves)
Fruits and vegetables such as red grapes and yellow peppers
1 cup green tea
Spinach is loaded with vitamin E, which helps neutralize the free radicals in your body that damage brain cells, and the oil in the vinaigrette aids in the absorption of the vitamin. Walnuts are a top source of omega-3s, which reduce inflammation in the brain and allow it to function properly. Colorful fruits and vegetables contain an array of brain-boosting antioxidants and nutrients, and green tea is rich in flavonoids, which improve mental performance.
Power Meal: Dinner
1/2 cup fortified whole wheat pasta
4 ounces salmon
1 cup broccoli or brussels sprouts
Fortified pasta is enriched with folic acid, a nutrient that may improve brain function, according to a study. Tomato sauce is loaded with antioxidants that help prevent inflammation. Fish such as salmon and mackerel are packed with omega-3s. Broccoli and brussels sprouts contain vitamin E.
For a quick boost, combine 1 cup green tea + 1/2 cup strawberries + 1/2 cup grapes or Concord grape juice + 1/2 cup blueberries + 1 cup ice + 1 tablespoon agave syrup in a juicer or blender. Process until smooth.
Recipe from Dave Grotto, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member
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