Everyone knows that exercise is important, but I don’t believe it’s the most important thing that one can do for weight loss. While regular activity and movement are necessary, and I especially believe that we all need to breathe fresh air daily, I also think that too much emphasis is placed on vigorous exercise for people who are trying to lose weight.

However, an accumulating body of research now indicates that exercise both strengthens and fuels the brain, which is exciting news for those of us with a family history of Alzheimer’s or dementia or, indeed, for anyone wanting to stay healthy.

It’s easy to confuse looking healthy (which generally means being thin and having some muscle tone) with being healthy, but brain health is something not readily visible. And brain health is just about as critical as it gets. It turns out that exercise can make your brain healthier, so while I think that anyone embarking on a weight loss plan should ease their way into working out, it does seem that vigorous exercise has great benefits once you reach a weight that will allow your joints and ligaments to easily handle the pounding and stress of serious exercise.

Any number of new studies now show that, more than exercising your brain with knowledge-and-learning activities, actual vigorous physical exercise is the single most useful thing you can do to prevent deterioration of (and even increase) cognitive functions. An Irish study had college-aged men perform rapid-fire memory tests, then asked half the men to cycle vigorously for thirty minutes, while the other half sat quietly. The cycling group performed better on a second version of the test immediately after exercising, while the other group did not. They also used blood tests to determine levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), and the exercising group had significantly higher levels of this protein than the relaxing group did. BDNF is important for long-term memory, and is critical to growth of new neurons and existing neural health.

A Japanese study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Physiology, showed that after a vigorous exercise session, laboratory rats had highly elevated levels of brain glycogen, though levels returned to normal within a day. A more significant finding, however, was that rats who performed daily vigorous exercise for four weeks actually increased their baseline levels of brain glycogen. Why is this important? Because a brain with more fuel not only can work harder and longer (just like better-fueled muscles can), it seems that a better fueled brain might also be a sharper, better working brain.

And perhaps the most exciting recent finding is that exercise actually increases mitochondria in the brains of laboratory mice. In other muscles in the body, more mitochondria means stronger, more powerful cells; mitochondria are the organelles within cells that create the energy needed for all cellular activity, and their increase leads to any number of health benefits and resistance to fatigue. The ability to create new brain mitochondria “may have important implications, not only with regard to fatigue, but also with respect to various central nervous system diseases and age-related dementia that are often characterized by mitochondrial dysfunction.”

We’ve known for centuries that exercise is good for the body, and for many years now it’s been clear that there are benefits for the brain as well. But these and many other studies are pointing out just how invaluable exercise is for overall health. My suggestion for performing regular, vigorous exercise is to first reach a weight where you can exercise hard without injuring yourself. To get to that point, walk daily, being sure to focus on your breathing. Slowly build up to longer distances and faster speeds; if you start with a ten-minute meander, increase it to fifteen minutes after a couple of weeks, and try to go a bit faster. Over time, you will naturally be able to go longer and harder, and you’ll enjoy it more if you don’t injure yourself by starting too fast.

I also always recommend gentle, restorative yoga poses, regardless of one’s level of fitness, as yoga increases balance, flexibility, and peace of mind. Be sure to find a good yoga instructor if you’re new to yoga, though videos are fine for someone who already knows what they’re doing. But it’s easy to get injured if you’re new to yoga, so check out this database of yoga instructors to find a good class near you.

Finally, look for sports or exercises that you enjoy doing. If you’re a social person, find a class that’s fun, or a group to work out with. If you’re someone who enjoys a bit of solitude each day, running, swimming, rowing, or cycling provide ample opportunity to be alone with your breath, the road (or water!) and your thoughts. Try doing a few different activities so that your muscles get worked in a variety of ways, and to keep yourself interested in your program.