It is a truth universally acknowledged that exercise is good for you. The benefits range from reducing risk for heart attacks to improving the long-term outcomes for individuals with mood disorders like depression. Despite this, less than a quarter of U.S. adults meet national physical activity guidelines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. While exercise offers myriad physical benefits, scientists are also interested in how regular physical activity can fundamentally change the brain, especially when it comes to disease and aging. A recent study on mice, published in the journal Nature Medicine, found that a hormone released while exercising may improve overall brain health and mitigate the damage and memory loss associated with dementia.
In healthy mice that worked out, which consisted of swimming for an hour almost daily for five weeks, the irisin levels in the brain increased during the physical activity and appeared to help ward off the negative effects when scientists introduced a protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease into the healthy mice’s brains. The buff mice also had better memory test performance than their inactive rodent counterparts.
Basically, while the findings were rodent-specific, they do offer potential reasoning behind how exercise may protect human brains and preserve cognitive skills and memory. The study also raises questions for future research of how different forms of exercise might impact the brain. Ahead, five ways that current research suggests different kinds of exercise may affect the brain.
1 – Running is Linked to Brain Cell Generation in Mice
In a 2016 rodent study, aerobic exercise like running was associated with the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain dedicated to storing memories and forming new ones. This exercise can also positively affect the health and function of the synapses between neurons in the hippocampus, improving communication between brain cells in the area.
2 – Aerobic Exercise Can Help with Memory and Emotional Affect
In another experimental study, this time in humans, 28 young and healthy students engaged in an aerobic running program. The exercising group of students had a significant increase in spatial memory performance and positive feelings and emotions, compared to the non-exercising control group.
3 – Biking
One study found that in blood flow to the brain increased in subjects who exercised on a stationary bike, another form of aerobic exercise. The increased blood flow was linked to mechanisms responsible for cell growth and improvement in brain function.
“Considering exercise can also reduce the risks associated with common lifestyle diseases that impact the brain, such as high blood sugar and hypertension, it is further motivation to try to incorporate exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle,” study author Joe Northey, a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sport and Exercise in Australia, told Time.
4 – Breathing-Based Yoga is Associated with Improvements in Attention
A 2018 pilot study investigated the effects of both movement and breathing-focused yoga practices on stress and attention span in university students. The study found that participants of both practices exhibited a reduction in perceived stress (relative to when they began the exercise regiment). Interestingly, only the breath-focused yoga group showed significant improvements in their sustained attention.
5 – Basically Any Kind of Exercise Will Help Your Aging Brain
Strength-training, aerobic exercise, yoga—according to a 2018 study, all of these forms of exercise led to improved cognitive performance in older adults (average age: 73) both with and without cognitive impairments. The research found that exercising for at least 52 hours over the course of around six months offered benefits to the brain, whether it was just one of these modes of exercise or a combination of the three. Rather than the mode of exercise, the study emphasized the total duration of hours spent over a sustained period of time.
At the end of the day, it isn’t hugely important whether you prefer weight training, running, or doing yoga. The benefits of incorporating any kind of exercise into your life, especially for the brain, far outweigh the benefits of not exercising at all.