When many people think of impressive brain power, the stereotypical image of a skinny bookworm may come to mind. However, when it comes to building a healthy brain as an adult, new research shows that spending a few hours in the gym now and then provides a brain-boosting benefit. Keeping your body fit is just as important for your brain as it is for maintaining a healthy heart and ideal weight.
“Doctors advocate for regular exercise because it helps prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other weight-related conditions and illnesses,” said Geisinger neurologist Glen Finney, MD. “This study shows that moderate exercise also helps to keep your brain healthy.”
Why does exercise matter for the brain?
The phrase “use it or lose it” applies to your brain as much as it does to the muscles in your body. Your ability to think, make memories and figure out complex problems relies on the neural connections in your brain. These connections are the way one brain cell, or neuron, communicates with another.
In order for messages to pass between neurons, these connections need to stay healthy and strong.
“Exercising helps your brain in a few different ways,” said Dr. Finney. “It increases your heart rate, which causes more blood and oxygen to reach the brain. It also causes the release of certain hormones that help brain cells to grow and regenerate.”
Does the type of exercise make a difference?
Studies with animals have long shown that aerobic exercising, the kind you get from running, doubles and sometimes even triples the number of new neurons in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. This means that if you run, even as an adult, you can continue to improve your memory and make it easier to learn new things.
Researchers wanted to see if the type of exercise mattered, so they measured the growth of neurons in the hippocampus of rats who exercised. They placed the rats into three groups: the first group ran on a wheel at a moderate pace, the second did interval training by sprinting and resting, and the last group did resistance training by climbing a wall with weights on their tails.
“The results showed that group performing moderate aerobic exercise experienced the most brain growth,” said Dr. Finney. “The interval training group had some neurogenesis in the hippocampus but not as much, and the resistance training group had none.”
The takeaway is that you don’t have to work out intensely or lift heavy weights to improve your memory and learning. An easy jog on a treadmill a few times a week will be enough to provide a brain-building benefit.
“If you don’t exercise currently, check with your doctor first before starting to make sure it’s safe for you,” said Dr. Finney.
Once you get the all-clear from your doctor, slowly work your way up to the recommended 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week (or 30 minutes per day, five days per week).
Dr. Glen Finney is director for Aging Brain and Behavioral Neurology at Geisinger.