Which Type of Exercise is Best for the Brain?



A new study indicates that some forms of exercise may be much more effective than others at bulking up the brain. Scientists compared head-to-head the neurological impacts of different types of exercise: running, weight training, and high-intensity interval training.

The surprising results suggest that going hard may not be the best option for long-term brain health.

Researchers know that exercise changes the structure and function of the brain. Studies 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.

Exercise has also been shown to aid in the creation of new brain cells in an already mature adult brain (neurogenesis). In studies with animals, exercise, in the form of running wheels or treadmills, has been found to double or even triple the number of new neurons that appear after in the animal’s hippocampus, a key area of the brain for learning and memory.

Researchers found varying levels of neurogenesis depending on the kind of exercise performed.

Those rats that had run on wheels showed the highest levels of neurogenesis. In people, the greater the distance that a runner had covered during the experiment, the more new cells its brain contained.

There were far fewer 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 detectable increase in brain volume. Their hippocampal tissue looked just like that of the animals that had not exercised at all.

While rats are obviously not people, the results of the study do suggest that sustained aerobic exercise might be most beneficial for brain health in humans as well.

So, if you currently weight train or exclusively work out with intense intervals, continue. But perhaps also add in an occasional run or bike ride for the sake of your hippocampal health. And if you don’t exercise, this is persuasive evidence to get moving!