The best kind of exercise for your brain, according to science
Now that meditation has gone mainstream, we’ve begun to associate mental strength with sitting still. But moving is just as important when it comes to cognitive capacity, and the more, the better.
Several of the latest studies have us joining Alexander Pope in the “strength of mind is exercise, not rest” mentality and — bear with us — might even make the case for working out on vacation.
New research supports the idea that certain types of exercise are just as beneficial for memory, mood, and mental wellness as they are for your body and heart. A daily period of prolonged aerobic exercise — a 45-minute jog or bike ride every morning — is one of the best ways to flex your mental fortitude, and skipping even a week can be detrimental to your cognitive gains.
For years, studies in humans and animals have linked working up a sweat to better mental health, confirming moderate physical exercise as a way to reduce the severity of depressive symptoms and regulate stress hormones. Elle Woods has enlightened us all on the effects of endorphins, and it makes sense that the increased blood flow to the brain would help it fire on all cylinders — not only during your spin class but through rest of the day. And as more and more supporting empirical evidence emerges, we’re seeing that those positive brain effects may even last through the rest of your life, proving exercise is a way to maintain cognitive health, especially in old age.
A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that sustained physical exercise improves cognitive function in individuals aged 50 or older. To best prevent or delay neurodegeneration with age, the study recommends a 45- to 60-minute session of moderate or higher intensity aerobic and resistance exercise on “as many days of the week as feasible.” A similar study published this month had participants aged 60-88 with mild cognitive impairment (an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease) walk for 30 minutes, four days a week, for 12 consecutive weeks. At the end of the trial, researchers found increased connectivity in 10 regions of the brain.
The key in both studies is consistency — finding a way to work regular exercise into your routine on as many days as possible — because positive effects can fade quickly. A study last year asked long-term endurance athletes (adults between the age of 50 and 80 who’d been training for at least 15 years, four hours or more each week) to give up all forms of physical activity, vigorous or otherwise, for 10 days.
After just over a week without training, researchers found a significant decrease in resting cerebral blood flow (a measure of blood supply) in eight gray matter regions of the brain, including the hippocampus, which we most commonly associate with memory and learning. Possibly another reason we feel so groggy returning from a week-long trip spent relaxing?
As for which type of physical exercise is best for the brain, consider the results of a study published in The Journal of Physiology that was performed on rats. Researchers used an injection to track new brain cells and divided them into four groups: a sedentary control, and groups to take part in a made-for-rodents version of three forms of exercise: aerobic training, high-intensity interval training, and resistance training. After seven weeks on their new regimen, the rats in the endurance run club far outperformed the other two in new brain cell development, while the weight-lifting group showed no increase at all.
So if you find yourself becoming more forgetful, try setting aside an hour every day for cardio, even if that means having to make room in your suitcase for those running shoes.