New research shows that different kinds of exercise affect the brain in different ways. Although exercise is important to reduce the risk of chronic disease, you can also use different forms of exercise to hone in on your desired brain-based outcomes.
Aerobic exercise protects memory
In mild Alzheimer's patients, those who are more physically active show less brain shrinkage than those who are less fit. Another study of older adults showed those with higher cardiorespiratory fitness had less deterioration of the brain's white matter, even after they controlled for factors such as age, sex and body mass index.
This is partly due to increased blood flow that brings more oxygen, growth factors, hormones, and nutrients to the brain, enabling it to grow stronger and more efficient.
Initial explorations into aerobic exercise's benefits focused on mice, who showed improved memory after regular running on a wheel.
This was attributed to increased neuron formation in the brain's hippocampus, which is involved in verbal memory and learning. Also noted was increased n brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), an anti-inflammatory brain chemical that promotes growth of new neurons.
Different workouts benefit different areas of the brain
Now we're seeing a flood of research that points to weight lifting, high-intensity interval training, and even yoga for positive effects on brain health and function.
Below are categories of exercise, the region of the brain they affect, and the associated functions.
Weight lifting: Prefrontal cortex, involved in complex thinking, multitasking, problem-solving, and reasoning.
Yoga: Frontal lobe, insula and amygdala, involved in integration of thoughts and emotions.
High-intensity interval training: Hypothalamus, involved in appetite regulation, addictions, and cravings.
- Prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, related to inhibition, attention, and task switching.
- Parietal lobe, related to visual-spatial processing.
- Cerebellum, related to attention.
Aerobic exercise: Hippocampus involved in memory and learning.
Comparing different types of exercise
In a study comparing strength training with aerobic exercise, researchers looked at three groups of women: One group took part in brisk walking, one lifted weights, and the control group simply stretched.
The walking and weight lifting groups experienced positive effects on their spatial memory — the ability to remember one's sense of space and surroundings.
The aerobic-only group also saw improvements in verbal memory. The weight lifting-only group saw significant improvement in executive function, mental skills such as playing with ideas, meeting challenges, thinking before acting, resisting temptations, and staying focused. This group also performed better on tests of associative memory such as linking a face to a name.
Combine exercises or pick just one?
Another study looked into combining workouts for maximum brain benefits.
In dementia subjects, the group that participated in a combination of brisk walking and strength training had more improvement in executive function than either the groups that only walked briskly or only strength trained.
While these potential benefits are of value to all ages, this is of particular interest for aging populations who are at most risk for brain degeneration. It seems for older adults, walking is not enough. They also need to do some strength training.
Aerobic exercise alone powers production of BDNF but combining it with strength training may be the winning combination.
Why? Strength training releases insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), known to positively impact communication between brain neurons, as well as promote growth of new neurons and blood vessels. Strength training also helps lower levels of homocysteine, an inflammatory factor that plays into dementia in older adults.
Exercise benefits children's developing brains
Varied exercise benefits children as well, improving attention, executive function, and capacity for math and reading tests.
Research has shown brisk walking can help kids with ADHD focus better on tests on short-term basis.
On the other hand, highly structured exercises such as sports drills that requires intense focus can hamper attention in children before tests. However, these kinds of focused coordination activities taken in small bits over time may help kids build attention span and actually do better on tests requiring concentration and avoiding distractions.
Pick exercise you enjoy to get your body moving
Current exercise recommendations for adults are a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity plus two or more days of muscle-strengthening exercises each week. For youth ages 6 to 17, 60 minutes of physical activity per day is recommended, including aerobic, strengthening, and bone-strengthening exercises.
What is the best kind of exercise to do? With the big picture in mind, consider varying your exercise regimen regularly to benefit the whole brain. In moments of lower motivation, pick an exercise you enjoy so you'll actually do it.
Contact my office for more help with what kind of exercise your brain needs most.