Healthy Mind

‘I’m a Neurologist, and This Is My Go-To Workout To Keep My Brain Healthy’

Photo: Getty Images/Oana Szekely
Your feet are hitting the pavement, your heart rate is rising, and you’re slightly out of breath. You’re getting in your cardio for the third time this week, and it feels great to know that you are building a healthier heart and lungs. But did you know that same cardio training also has a massive impact on your brain?

While heart health has been a large focus for some time, there has started to be more awareness around brain health. And heart health and brain health go hand-in-hand, since heart diseases such as hypertension are a major risk factor for things like strokes.

“By working out, you are working on your brain for the future,” says Nahayo Esperant-Hilaire, MD, a third-year neurology resident at UCLA Health. “A stroke is a brain disease. If you're not taking care of yourself through workout and diet, your cholesterol will go up. The same way it goes up in the heart, it goes up in the brain. The blood vessels continue to get narrower, and cut off, and then you have a stroke. It’s the same way people have a heart attack.”

Keeping your brain healthy could be considered to be even more crucial than your heart, according to Dr. Esperant-Hilaire: “If you trash your heart we can give you another heart. If you trash your brain, unfortunately we cannot give you another brain,” he points out.

So, how does an expert keep his own brain healthy?

Dr. Esperant-Hilaire’s personal workout routine is to run in the early mornings for 45 minutes to an hour. He tries to do it daily, but because he is currently in residency his schedule can fluctuate, and some weeks it’s more of a challenge. But he always makes sure to run at least three times per week. “You have to be flexible,” he says.

While Dr. Esperant-Hilaire prefers running, and often suggests it to his patients, he also recommends biking, power walking, and swimming (which is great for anyone who experiences joint problems, he notes). “The higher the intensity, the better to raise the heart rate,” he says. These exercises should be done about three times per week for at least 15 minutes if performed at a vigorous level, or for 30 minutes or longer if at a moderate level.

Other brain benefits of consistent cardio

In addition to preventing strokes, getting in cardio workouts regularly has also been found to help those who struggle with migraines. A 2020 journal review by Current Pain and Headache Reports states, “a sufficiently rigorous aerobic exercise regimen alone is sufficient to yield a statistically significant reduction in migraine frequency, intensity, and duration.” Dr. Esperant-Hilaire says the research shows that exercising can even be as effective as medication.

Aerobic exercise can also help when it comes to depression because of the endorphins involved. “By exercising, your happy hormones release,” he says.

Of course, activity isn’t a cure-all for serious mental or physical health problems. But lacing up your shoes for a workout consistently can be a big step to helping keep your body and brain in shape.

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