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How sports and nutrition influence your brain – Interview

Fitness Editor
Dominic is a sports journalist and personal trainer and writes fitness articles for our magazine. He also makes free workout plans for our site.

It’s clear that sports and nutrition are two of the deciding factors for a healthy life. Both influence the brain’s performance.

David Klinkhammer, who teaches at the German Sports Academy, explains why exercise and nutrition not only improve your physical performance, but also what happens in your brain and which foods have a particularly positive influence on our thinking.

Photo of David Klinkhammer, German Sports Academy
©Deutsche Sportakademie

What are the effects of sports and nutrition on our brain?

Exercise affects the brain’s release of hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and serotonin. Exercise also improves blood circulation in our brain. This creates new connections that increase our mental abilities. What’s more, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is used when you work out brain teasers, whether at work or at school. Exercising during breaks or after work is like a reset for this part of your brain. No matter what, keep this in mind when you’re thinking of what to eat: If you want top-tier performance from your brain, you have to fuel it with proper food and liquids. Micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals are responsible for important metabolic processes.

Which sports or training methods are specifically suited to improving our thinking skills?

There are no real restrictions here. The main thing is the movement itself, and that the person has fun doing it. If you go into a workout with a negative mood, you’ll be more distracted rather than getting into the workout mindset. In addition, it should be a challenge for your body. Just as the muscles do, the brain needs to be challenged in order to grow. The more strenuous the workout, the more blood circulates through, and the more hormones will be released.

Two women go for a run, showing sports and nutrition can improve brain function
©PeopleImages

There are training methods which utilize “special” movements for particular effects. These combine activities which are challenging for your body and your brain at the same time (for example, walking and balancing backwards while you are doing math problems). You keep doing the same exercise until your brain gets used to it and starts doing both automatically. Then you shift to another exercise. This ensures that the brain is constantly stimulated, which leads to creating new connections. That, in turn, improves your ability to concentrate, your swiftness of action, and your resistance to stress.

How long do you have to work out regularly before you start to notice a positive effect on your brain?

It starts immediately! While you’re still doing the workout, as well as afterwards, you get a contented feeling. If you do sports regularly and keep creating that same feeling, it will have an effect on your resilience. What’s more, doing sports helps you work through stress, which means a higher resistance to stress in your life. There haven’t been enough studies yet to work out how long it takes to build new nerve cells in your brain. But it’s important to know that this is possible, and that the effects I was talking about play a part in the process.

Nutrition also has a big influence on our thinking processes. What noticeable effects does healthy, balanced eating have on the brain?

Good hydration is really important to keep the blood circulating in the brain. If you haven’t had enough to drink, it elevates your blood pressure and constricts your blood vessels. Our brain won’t get the full supplies of oxygen that it needs. This also affects our body’s functioning. Intellectual thought and concentration will also suffer. If you’re having trouble concentrating, my first recommendation is to drink a glass of water.

A woman of color in raspberry-colored sports bra and leggings poses while taking a drink from a sports bottle
©PeopleImages

It’s just as important to get energy from macronutrients.  An adult’s brain burns nearly 500 calories a day. Most of it is fat, because the brain is in large part made from fat. But micronutrients have a big effect on our brain, too.

Which micronutrients have a positive effect on our brain?

The B vitamin group is really important for our thought processes. The body needs these vitamins to create important hormones. Vitamin D3 can also have a positive effect on our brain, not to mention our immune system. A weakened immune system leads to inflammatory processes in the body. When these continue for the longer term, it can lead to chronic illnesses such as arteriosclerosis, arthritis or rheumatism. Omega-3 fatty acids can help you avoid these inflammatory processes.

How do omega-3 fatty acids work in our brain?

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids whose structure makes it easy to be absorbed by our cell membranes. They make our cell membranes more flexible, which shows up as improved mental performance. What’s more, omega-3 fatty acids also play a part in influencing our mood. Depression can often be traced back to low levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Adding omega-3 to the diet can relieve the symptoms within a week! The hippocampus is the brain’s learning and memory center. It uses omega-3 to build new nerve cells.

A red-haired white woman wearing glasses stands on a street, grimacing at a yellow sticky note stuck to her forehead
©Westend61

In patients with depression, the hippocampus is often smaller than normal. That also explains why depression is often associated with a bad sense of memory. People in the last weeks of their pregnancy are funneling large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids to their baby as its brain develops. If the parent doesn’t get these extra reserves through their food, the baby will take it from their parent’s own reserves. This phenomenon might be one of the reasons behind the “baby blues” often felt in the days and weeks after giving birth. Being overweight is also often associated with inflammatory processes. Omega-3 fatty acids can work against these processes as well as the illnesses they often produce, such as rheumatism and arteriosclerosis – or at least slow their progress.

So fat is important for health?

As ironic as it sounds? Yes. But we aren’t talking about junk food here. Trans-fatty acids – hardened fats – will work against you here. They lead to heart and circulatory issues. On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids have a positive effect on weight loss. This is mainly due to the fact that being overweight can affect metabolic processes which are involved with the body’s feeling of satiety (fullness). If inflammatory processes are getting in the way of our hypothalamus’s full functioning, we also lose the sensation of being full, which isn’t great for keeping a calorie deficit.

Which foods have particularly high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and what are the options for vegans?

Fatty fish like salmon or mackerel are a great choice. Any kind of nut, too, especially walnuts. And seeds as well, such as flax or chia seeds. Just top a salad, smoothie or bowl of muesli with one of these and you’ll have done your omega-3 levels a favor. In terms of oil, I recommend cold-pressed rapeseed (canola) oil. It’s especially great for stirring up salad dressings. Finally, you can also find omega-3 in the form of fish oil or krill capsules as a dietary supplement. The vegan version comes from algae.  

As you can see, a combination of sports and nutrition can contribute to a positive effect on your brain’s performance. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids is particularly useful. Our vegan omega-3 capsules are extracted directly from microalgae.  No extra steps in the food chain. Try our vegan omega-3 capsules

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