Cognitive processes can be divided into six areas: attention, perception, memory, language, learning and higher reasoning. These can occur both simultaneously and independently, but they often intertwine to orchestrate how we think, feel and move our way through life.
But we can learn new skills or new ways of thinking even more rapidly when we also learn new movement patterns, whether a new dance or another type of movement, which will increase our cognitive fitness and the longevity of our mental processes.
When you get moving, you increase circulation, which in a sense exercises the blood vessels themselves and helps to prevent neurodegenerative conditions known to create cognitive impairment.1 Exercise also helps to control blood sugar levels,2 and recent studies have shown that people with impaired glucose tolerance and blood sugar balance have deficits in the hippocampus—a part of the brain involved in forming and accessing memories. It shrinks in volume as well as function in this population.3
It's well known that parts of the brain that are worked more tend to grow more robust. As exercise increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, it directly improves circulation there as well as the health of the blood-brain barrier, the system that helps deliver nutrients to brain cells.
For this reason, aerobic exercise—running, swimming, cycling—is the most beneficial for basic brain health as you age, because as it increases your heart rate, more blood and oxygen are pumped to this most important organ for survival.4 Exercise gives you increased mental acuity by sharpening your ability to respond, focus on where your body goes and take cues from the environment and people around you.
Humans need a range of activities that switch mental function from one task to another, so that this mind-body connection gets a full workout. Besides aerobic exercise, it's good to include activities with a problem-solving element, such as housework, gardening, building or DIY.
Maybe most important of all, the more you can get out into nature, the more you connect with the natural world, which helps to lower stress hormones, and are challenged to be responsive to the changing ground underneath your feet. This helps to reduce the psychosocial stress of modern living and continual brain overwhelm, which can wear down cognition.
The value of mindful exercise
Nature helps to bring you into the present moment, a state of mind that can be replicated with mindful practices. Any movement or exercise with full consciousness of the experience promotes cognitive health. Yoga is one such mindful practice and has been shown to have particular benefit for brain function, as have tai chi and qigong.
In one study, 108 adults between 55 and 79 years of age were divided into two groups: 61 of them attended hatha yoga classes, and the others met together for the same number and length of sessions, but simply carried out stretching and toning exercises, rather than the focused attention that is part of yoga practice.
At the end of the eight-week study, the yoga group performed tests of memory recall more accurately and faster than before, with increased working memory capacity, which involves "continually updating and manipulating information." Their ability to mentally change and adapt as they switched tasks was also improved. In contrast, the non-yoga group showed no significant change in cognitive performance.5
This difference between the groups was not related to age, gender, income or other demographic factors. Rather, the change was attributed to the mindful attention of this specific form of exercise, since hatha yoga "requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate."
As the study authors concluded, "It is plausible that this focus on one's body and mind during yoga practice may have generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to focus and sustain attention."
This is consistent with evidence from imaging studies showing that the brains of elderly female yoga practitioners had greater cortical thickness (meaning more brain cells were present) in the left prefrontal cortex, an area in the brain associated with cognitive functions such as memory and attention.6
Cross-lateral movement and balancing
As the two sides of the brain are responsible for controlling opposite sides of the body, any quadrupedal movement where your body moves the opposite leg to arm at any given time is a 'cross-lateral' movement—one that encourages communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. Research examining quadrupedal movement in adults concluded, "Performance of a novel, progressive and challenging task, requiring the coordination of all four limbs, has a beneficial impact on cognitive flexibility."7
Switching movement types and direction forward, backward and side-to-side requires quick adjustments of the brain to process these challenging signals, which in turn supports memory, concentration and productivity. Balance practice also helps to increase focus; you need to stay aware of where your body is in space as it continually rights itself back toward the center of gravity.
Regular balancing practices have been shown to improve memory and spatial cognition, the sense of where and when you are at any given moment.8 This 'presence' only occurs when you maintain attention with steady, fixed gaze while breathing with ease.
This is one of the reasons why yoga reduces stress hormones; to stay in such positions for any length of time, you cannot hold yourself tensely. It is only possible if you learn to find ease within a strong and challenging position.
In this way, you become more adaptable in both body and mind as your body ceases to register the practice as a stressful event. Reducing the sympathetic nervous system's fight-or-flight response stops you from reacting to change and instead increases neuroplasticity, your ability to mentally adapt and stay flexible with change. This is a great recipe for maintaining and growing cognitive function.
The following two sequences help cognitive function in slightly different ways and can be practiced alone or as one longer session.
Standing plane for balance
1) Standing with feet hip-width apart and knees soft, release the shoulders and jaw before bringing your arms into a circle. Then, gazing at the spot between your hands, retain this focus and take your arms into full circles, following this trajectory with your eyes. Stay aware of your feet on the ground, bending your knees when reaching down. Change the direction and notice any differences in focus there.
2) Hands on hips, focus on one point directly in front of you and then lift one leg to circle the knee and hip forward and out. You can either touch the toes to the ground between circles or keep the foot up for more balance. Breathe fully to hold balance without tensing your shoulders or temples. Repeat on the other side.
3) Step wide with feet turned out at about 45° in a 'goddess' pose. Place your hands together at your heart, then inhale your arms out wide and above your head as your legs come to straight. Exhale back down to your heart, bending your legs, knees pointing toward your toes and drawing up from the belly.
4) From the last stance, revolve your feet so one is turned in, the other out 90°, with front knee bent and arms out in a 'warrior' pose. From there, inhale the arms up above your head as you bring legs to straight and exhale back down to arms out, front knee bent. Do as many of these motions as you can while your breath can stay long and spacious, then hold the pose.
5) Revolve the back heel and hip in to come to a high lunge, feet hip-width apart. Lean the torso forward for a 'humble' version, arms out to the side at shoulder height.
6) Step the back foot in to transfer the weight to the front foot and open out the top hip to lift the back foot into 'half-moon' balance. Look down at one spot for focus, and lift the top arm to open the top shoulder and rotate open the chest. Breathe fully before stepping back through the lunge, to warrior and then goddess. Then turning to the other side, repeat steps 4-6
7) Come to a standing meditation to integrate the movement back to the center.
Seated plane for grounding focus
With the 'z-sit' positions here—where one thigh bone is rotated in and the other out—the hips are moved in a way that is beneficial and accessible for most. Tightness around the hips, belly and lower back can interrupt blood flow up from the legs back to the brain, so this area is important to consider to boost oxygenation for cognition. This is also a great alternative to sitting on chairs at home or whenever you can, as sedentary behaviors and the slump of chair-sitting can greatly compromise circulation.
1) In 'z-sit' with right leg turned in, left turned out, support yourself with the right hand on the ground. Reach the left arm out to the side and spend some time focusing your gaze there. Feel uplift through the spine with the inhalation, softening in the shoulders with the exhale.
2) From there, rotate the arm in full circles - down past the front of the knees and reaching up and over. Allow the movement to come from the hips and belly so you are involving the side body, chest, shoulders and neck in their most natural organization. Keep your focus completely on where your hand is in time and space as a 'moving meditation,' so your brain has to constantly adjust to its changing position.
3) Then, dropping onto the right forearm to come lower, reach the left arm over the left ear to settle into a side flank opener that raises the heartbeat a little. Find a position for the head where you feel long in both sides of the neck and you are able to hold and fully breathe with comfort. Repeat these first three steps on the other side.
4) Lengthen out the left leg off the floor with the foot flexed (opposite to pointed) and the little-toe side of the foot parallel to the ground, so that the thigh revolves slightly in. If your shoulder has the space, lengthen the left arm out away from the left foot. Breathe fully into the exhalation as this pose becomes more active.
5) Bring the left leg back down and rest into a twist to the right, elbows to the ground where you feel they are equally weighted. Let the head drop there to release the neck and then move to steps 3-5 on the other side.
6) Come to center to rest in a seated fetal position, letting your focus come back to the midline.
7) Lie down in savasana (corpse pose) to allow your mind-body to fully integrate the movements and attention. Raising your legs even slightly here (on bolsters as shown or even to a chair seat or sofa) creates rest in the heart and increased circulation to the brain.