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Exercise and brain health

Exercise and brain health

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How exercise increases more than just muscle. Exercise physiologist Andrew Cate looks into the latest research, and outlines the best way to train your brain.

Exercise and brain function

Research is continually gaining a greater understanding of the role exercise can play in boosting many aspects of brain health. Research suggests that the increased oxygen uptake associated with aerobic exercise is linked to increased cerebral blood volume and in turn, cognitive benefits. 

Recent research has centred on the hippocampus, a brain region identified as a site for neuroplasticity, which reflects on our brain’s capacity to change and adapt. 

The hippocampus is known to be sensitive to the effects of physical activity, and in particular, cardiovascular or aerobic exercise.

How exercise benefits the brain

A study published in NeuroImage used brain scans to examine the effects of aerobic exercise on the hippocampus.
In reviewing 14 studies with a total of 737 participants the study authors found that aerobic exercise had significant positive effects on left hippocampal volume in healthy older adults. 

One particular study examined the effects of exercise in young-to-middle-aged adults, and found no change in total hippocampal volume, but did find a significant increase in anterior hippocampal volume following 6 weeks of aerobic exercise. 

According to the researchers, the positive effects on the brain observed from exercise are due, in part, to the slowing down or prevention of volume loss occurring over time.
In other words, exercise may help to reduce the loss of neuronal mass and cognitive decline that occurs with increasing age.

How to train your brain

We know that improvements in cardiovascular fitness are positively associated with the improvements in mental performance, and that a consistent program of exercise (with an emphasis on aerobic exercise) can help to maintain your physical and mental health over the long term. 

While a specific prescription for exercise to boost brain health will require more research, there are still some important considerations for your current exercise regime. 

Include rhythmic and continuous movement

The type of exercise featured in the research was defined as physical activity that was planned, structured and repetitive, with a focus on improving or maintaining fitness or health. 

Choose activities that are rhythmic and continuous, and that increase your body’s demand for oxygen (aerobic) such as walking, cycling, running, swimming and rowing.

Vary your exercise routine

The intensity, frequency and length of exercise programs varied considerably across the 14 studies reported for influencing hippocampal volume. 

So until further research is released, your best bet is to adopt a variety of training strategies. 

High intensity interval training
 has recently been shown to produce similar cardiovascular benefits to long-duration endurance training in short periods of times. It would therefore be wise to include a combination of interval training and slow and steady cardio movements as part of your weekly training schedule.

Make it a habit

Brain health decreases with age, yet exercise may help to slow or even reverse the effects. 

Exercise offers benefits throughout your lifespan, but you may have to make adjustment over time. For example, if you start to find running a bit tough on the joints,  you can adopt lower impact exercises such as walking, cycling or swimming.