The Exercise the Brain Loves Best
University of Wisconsin researchers report that people who do moderate exercise every day have healthier, more active brains. The magic number was 68 minutes per day. Less than that and the benefits were not as great. Doing 68 minutes or more of aerobic exercise showed the greatest benefit. Interestingly, doing more such as 100 minutes worth of exercise daily did not lead to greater benefits.[i]
Previous research has shown that any kind of exercise improves mood. One study followed adults for 30 years. They found those with the most activity had fewer symptoms of depression.[ii]
Now, however, the research specifically identifies aerobic exercise as the most beneficial for the brain. It not only makes one feel good, it protects and improves the physical health of the brain too.
How Aerobic Exercise Supports the Brain
The University of Wisconsin study noted that the moderate aerobic exercise supported better glucose metabolism in the brains of individuals as they aged. The researchers also suggested this may “suggest that [moderate physical activity] might protect against hypometabolism in brain regions that are particularly susceptible to the pathophysiology of [Alzheimer’s disease].”
In the study, they noted that the exercise increases the size of the hippocampus in the brain, offering protection for men and women against memory loss.[iii] This finding corresponded to an earlier study of women ages 70-80 years-old. Those who did aerobic exercise had “significantly increased hippocampal volume.”[iv] More recently, researchers observed increased connectivity in 10 areas of the brain which included frontal, parietal and temporal lobes as well as the cerebellum.[v]
It comes as no surprise perhaps that aerobic exercise also increases BDNF levels in the brain and central nervous system.[vi] BDNF promotes growth of brain and nerve cells, protects the cells, and plays a key role in learning and recall, with low levels of this molecule being common in diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.[vii]
Improved glucose metabolism, increases to BDNF and larger hippocampal volumes aren’t the only ways aerobic exercise supports the brain, according to some researchers. They also suggest the increased blood flow that comes with the heart-pumping exercise that makes you sweat plays a role.[viii] It increases oxygen levels which is also essential to thinking and memory.
Aerobic exercise also helps to reduce cortisol levels. As a Psychology Today article says, aerobic exercise provides an outlet to “burn up” cortisol, the hormone related to stress.[ix] Reducing cortisol is essential as consistently high levels have been identified as a trigger for mental illness and depression.
There will certainly be a lot more research into how and why aerobic exercise benefits the brain. Fortunately, while researchers dig into all those details, we can turn to specific exercises that have been shown to work.
Types of Aerobic Exercises to Do
The University of Wisconsin study said moderate aerobic exercise for a little over an hour a day produced the best results. This begs the question, what constitutes moderate exercise?
For one group of elderly, it only took moderate-intensity (brisk) walking 4 days a week, 30 minutes a day for 12 weeks to see results.[x] Other research suggests aerobic exercise combined with resistance training and Tai Chi work as well.[xi] But aerobic exercise could also include everything from high-intensity interval training workouts to yoga.
The exercise should get the heart beating, but the specific exercise done should fit the lifestyle and physical capacity of the individual. But when all it really takes is a brisk walk, the options for aerobic exercise are almost endless.
[i] Dougherty RJ, Schultz SA, Kirby TK, et al. Moderate Physical Activity is Associated with Cerebral Glucose Metabolism in Adults at Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD. 2017;58(4):1089-1097. doi:10.3233/JAD-161067.
[ii] Pinto Pereira SM, Geoffroy M, Power C. Depressive Symptoms and Physical Activity During 3 Decades in Adult LifeBidirectional Associations in a Prospective Cohort Study. JAMA Psychiatry.2014;71(12):1373–1380. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.1240
[iii] Dougherty RJ, Schultz SA, Boots EA, et al. Relationships between cardiorespiratory fitness, hippocampal volume, and episodic memory in a population at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Brain and Behavior. 2017;7(3):e00625. doi:10.1002/brb3.625.
[iv] ten Brinke LF, Bolandzadeh N, Nagamatsu LS, et al. Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomised controlled trial. Br J Sports Med 2015;49:248-254.
[v] Chirles TJ1, et al. Exercise Training and Functional Connectivity Changes in Mild Cognitive Impairment and Healthy Elders. J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;57(3):845-856. doi: 10.3233/JAD-161151.
[vi] Sleiman SF, Henry J, Al-Haddad R, et al. Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate. Elmquist JK, ed. eLife. 2016;5:e15092. doi:10.7554/eLife.15092.
[vii] Bathina S, Das UN. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications. Archives of Medical Science : AMS. 2015;11(6):1164-1178. doi:10.5114/aoms.2015.56342.
[x] Chirles TJ1, et al. Exercise Training and Functional Connectivity Changes in Mild Cognitive Impairment and Healthy Elders. J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;57(3):845-856. doi: 10.3233/JAD-161151.
[xi] Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, et al. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis. r J Sports Med 2018;52:154-160.
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