Exercise for Brain Health | Benefits of Exercise for Brain

While exercising on a regular basis brings along physical benefits, like building muscle, many of…

Exercise for Brain Health | Benefits of Exercise for Brain

While exercising on a regular basis brings along physical benefits, like building muscle, many of us can relate to working out so we can clear our minds and boost our moods. As it turns out, that’s not all our long runs, speedwork, strength training, and yoga sessions can do for our brains.

All of the ways we stay in shape can also improve our memories, intelligence, and ability to process information, and decrease our risk for general dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.

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We rounded up the most relevant scientific research about how your favorite ways to exercise also have some serious advantages for your noggin, below.

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🧠 Cardio Benefits

Whether you’ve been running for years or just recently bought your first pair of shoes, you can be assured that your exercise is doing wonders for your brain. A 2015 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at 59 people between the ages of 43 and 65, and found that those who participated in moderate or strenuous aerobic activity at least four days (or seven hours) a week performed better on subsequent cognitive tests that measured memory and attention than those who participated in less than one hour a week of aerobic activity. That’s because the people who exercised had better blood flow in the brain than those who didn’t.

“The findings from this study suggest that middle-age runners do not only have better cardiovascular function and health, but also enhanced cognitive performance particularly in the domains linked with age-related cognitive decline and impairment,” Martha Pyron, M.D., a coauthor of the study, previously told Runner’s World.

A 2018 study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that those who are more aerobically fit have better control of language processing than those who are more sedentary. Translation? Runners may be able to find the words they’re looking for quicker than non-runners. This is because cardio stimulates the formation of new nerve cells and blood vessels in the brain and increases the volume of the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain associated with language.

Similarly, a 2019 study in the journal Nature found that endurance training boosted the amount of white matter in your brain, which is responsible for communication. Additionally, those who had higher endurance were better at memory and recognition.

In terms of decreasing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, two recent studies—one published in the journal Brain Plasticity and the other in Experimental Biology and Medicinehave explored this area.

The first study found that those who followed a moderate-intensity training program of walking on a treadmill three times per week for 26 weeks improved their ability for memory retention, attention, and planning, which is known to diminish in people with Alzheimer’s disease. It also boosted the way the brain utilizes fuel to power brain function, which occurs in the region of the brain that typically changes early on in those with Alzheimer’s. The second study, which examined high-intensity interval training (HIIT), found that this type of activity can also prevent age-related cognitive decline.

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🧠 Strength-Training Benefits

Making strength training part of your routine does more than just power your runs and prevent injuries from sidelining you. There’s evidence that hitting the weights is good for your brain, too. Let’s start with an older 2012 study: Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that resistance training improved associative memory (the ability to remember the relationship between unrelated items), functional brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to re-wire itself), and selective attention (the ability to focus on a certain object or subject while ignoring other background stimuli) in a group of older women who were already experiencing mild cognitive impairment.

A 2018 review in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity looked at 18 studies and determined that regular resistance training positively impacted the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for many functions, such as speech and language, attention and concentration, organization and planning, memory, and reasoning.

Finally, a 2020 study published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical found that when a group of older adults who had a high risk of developing Alzheimer’s strength trained regularly for six months, there were improvements in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with language and memory.

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🧠 Yoga Benefits

It’s probably no surprise a regular yoga practice does wonders for your brain. A 2019 review in the journal Brain Plasticity looked at 11 previous studies about how yoga and brain health are connected and found that those who regularly did yoga had a larger amount of gray matter volume in their brains than those who didn’t do yoga. Gray matter plays a role in intelligence and better overall brain function, especially as you get older.

What’s more, a 2020 review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that yoga can help reduce symptoms of depression, and another 2020 study found that yoga can reduce symptoms of anxiety.

🧠 The Bottom Line

Your training schedule is packed with tons of activities, all of which benefit your mind as well as your body. Whether you’re logging a 10-miler, a track workout, or cross-training with weights or a yoga flow, know that your brain is also getting a good workout, too. Even if you haven’t been active your whole life, even just a few months of regular activity can have an impact in boosting your mental health and cognition.

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