Which Exercises Are Best for the Brain?

Which Exercises Are Best for the Brain?

Taking the stairs, scheduling an after-dinner walk, hitting the gym for weight lifting. Improving your heart health, relieving stress, fortifying your bones. There are just as many types of exercise as there are reasons for fitting in fitness.

As we get older, many us of might become particularly concerned with physical activity’s brain-boosting benefit, which is where the idea of knowing about brain fitness tips may come in handy.

It’s long been known that exercise can improve mental functioning later in life. Gretchen Reynolds for The New York Times recently wrote, “… exercise changes the structure and function of the brain. Studies in animals and people have shown that physical activity generally increases brain volume and can reduce the number and size of age-related holes in the brain’s white and gray matter.”

woman yoga outside pink mat grass

In the past, studies have examined specific types of exercise, typically with a focus on walking, running and other aerobic activities. But a new investigation designed a head-to-head comparison in rats between HIIT, running and weightlifting in an attempt to determine which type of exercise is best for the brain. The results affirm past findings on the benefits of slow endurance exercise — but showed something surprising about the other two methods.

The New York Times explains:

Those rats that had jogged on wheels showed robust levels of neurogenesis [brain cell creation]. Their hippocampal tissue teemed with new neurons, far more than in the brains of the sedentary animals. The greater the distance that a runner had covered during the experiment, the more new cells its brain now contained.

group running outdoors sun street

There were far fewer new neurons in the brains of the animals that had completed high-intensity interval training. They showed somewhat higher amounts than in the sedentary animals but far less than in the distance runners.

And the weight-training rats, although they were much stronger at the end of the experiment than they had been at the start, showed no discernible augmentation of neurogenesis. Their hippocampal tissue looked just like that of the animals that had not exercised at all.”

Although rats are not people, these findings are “provocative” and run contrary to both fitness trends of the day (HIIT-focused exercises are the darlings of gym everywhere these days), as well as past studies on the benefits of lifting weights for the brain. With this in mind, the researchers emphasized that they examined only one small part of the brain, so HIIT training and weightlifting might have produced positive changes elsewhere.

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Interestingly, another new study found that learning a new sport can be good for your brain in midlife, encouraging new neural pathways as you challenge your motor skills. (Dancing counts!)

That’s why all in all, the takeaway message should be: exercise. Find an activity you love, and do it. Once you discover the joy in movement, then it might be best to layer in a variety of fitness genres for the sake of your brain. It could help keep you young, or at the very least, interested in keeping up an active routine.

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