What type of exercise is best for brain health?
While brain scientists agree that exercise is good for preventing cognitive decline, they don’t yet know if any one type is better than another, but it’s something scientists are starting to research. For now, multiple studies have shown that both aerobic and resistance training have major cognitive benefits.
In a study published in July 2021 in the Journal of Applied Physiology, brisk treadmill walking at moderate-to high-intensities was shown to improve performance on memory tests of participants previously classified with MCI, aged 55 to 80.
Tsubasa Tomoto of the Department of Neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, led the research on this yearlong study, which focused on the vascular function of the brain before and after the exercise intervention.
“We showed that the aerobic training improved cerebral vascular motor reactivity (CVMR), whereas stretching (the control in this study) had no effect. That improved CVMR also correlated to improvement on more memory scores,” said Tomoto.
The Texas study used moderate- to high-intensity continuous exercise to achieve the results, but other studies have shown positive outcomes with High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and resistance training as well.
In fact, a 2020 Australian study published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical showed six months of resistance training not only resulted in improved cognition, but protected a region of the brain particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease for up to a year after cessation of exercise.
Here, participants aged 55 and over did three sets of eight repetitions of five exercises three times a week. The exercises were done on pneumatic resistance machines and included the chest press, leg press, seated row, standing hip abduction and knee extension.
While a wide variety of exercise types offer protection against developing Alzheimer’s disease, they all tend to be fairly intense. Sherzai noted that there is some evidence that there may be an upper limit to the intensity, above which there is no added benefit, or possibly even harm. But generally speaking, the more strenuous your workout, the better.
“Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise are effective,” Sherzai said, “but they must be strenuous enough to get your blood pumping.”
He especially recommends exercises involving the legs, whether that’s walking, running, cycling or weight lifting, because, “your legs — not the heart — are the largest pump in the body and moving that blood changes the architecture of the brain’s vascular system. It makes it healthier.”
For those not healthy enough to engage in moderate or strenuous activity, Sherzai says that lighter exercise still has both direct and indirect benefits for the brain. It’s not one or the other, but rather a matter of degrees.
The takeaway here is this: Exercise! As often as you can, for as long as you can, as strenuously as you can. Your brain will thank you.
Rashelle Brown is a longtime fitness professional and freelance writer with hundreds of bylines in print and online. She is a regular contributor for NextAvenue and the Active Network, and is the author of Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss (Turner Publishing). Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @RashelleBrownMN.
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