Which Form of Exercise Is Best for the Brain?

Exercise has a number of health benefits for both brain and body. Researchers from the Academy of Finland wanted to find out what kind of exercises provide the best workout for the brain.

Exercise has a number of health benefits for the body and the mind.

“Exercise has been shown to prevent many diseases that are associated with aging and it’s also been shown to really maintain brain function as well,” says Dr. Patricia Bloom, an associate professor of geriatrics at Mt. Sinai.

Researchers, funded in part by the Academy of Finland, were interested in how exercise can enhance the brain. They believe different kinds of exercise trigger the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which in turn triggers the production of new neurons.

Humans are not born with a set number of brain cells; some areas of the brain continue to produce more neurons through a process called neurogenesis. The hippocampus, a section of the brain responsible for memory, continues to produce more brain cells as we age. Past studies have shown running increases the production of new neurons in the brain, but what of other exercises?

This new study tested a group of rats for seven weeks, subjecting them to one of three sets of exercises: endurance training, weight training, or high-intensity interval training. They also had a sedentary group act as the control. While the study does involve rats as the test subjects, the researchers argue animal models have been reliable indicators of human behavior in the past.

At the end of the seven-week study, the rats' brains were dissected and examined to see if neuron production in the hippocampus had increased in one group more than the others.

The running group saw the highest number of new neurons produced and the high-intensity interval training group formed fewer neurons compared to the running group. The researchers believe the stress from high-intensity workouts may have inhibited the production of new neurons. Rats who underwent the weight-training program fared even worse. The amount of neurons these rats produced was equal to the amount in the sedentary group.

The study was limited to looking at production in the hippocampus. So, there's a chance weight-training — and those who suffer through session after session of CrossFit workouts — might see brain benefits elsewhere.


Photo Credit: MAXIM MALINOVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at PCMag.com where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

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