Which Type Of Exercise Is Best For Your Brain?

I recently stumbled across an article out of the New York Times [1], which talks about different types of exercise and their effects on long term brain health. Whether you’re a Bodybuilder, Power Lifter, Distance Runner, CrossFitter, or someone who likes to stay as healthy as possible, which type of exercise is going to have the greatest long term health benefits on your brain? This article will answer this question from a scientific perspective.

To start, how can we objectively determine which exercise is best for your brain? Previous research has used Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis (AHN) as a way to quantify brain health [2]. What the heck is that? AHN is a process in which cells develop in the brain, and are then incorporated into the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the central processing network for emotion, memory, and your autonomic nervous system. Studies in rodents advocate that AHN is crucial for a variety of adaptive behaviors such as learning [3], pattern recognition [4] and responses to stress [5]. And it has already been shown that steady state aerobic exercise, especially treadmill running, elicits a greater AHN response than doing nothing.

So what type of AHN response do you get when you add the effects of resistance training, and HIT in rats? The study mentioned in this article [6] did just that (in rats). Which group proved to be victorious? Lets take a closer look!

Not only did steady state cardio produce the highest levels of AHN, but it was also the only type of exercise to show statistically significant improvements. High intensity interval training showed a small increase in AHN, but it was much smaller than expected and not large enough to be considered significant. To everyone’s surprise, resistance training showed limited to no increase in AHN and was pretty much on par with the sedentary controls. But is it really fair to say that resistance training does not improve long term brain health?

Previous research studying resistance training has revealed many mental health benefits such as reduced fatigue, anxiety & depression [7], coupled with improvements in cognitive abilities [8] and self esteem [9]. If you ask me, that constitutes an improvement in brain health. Any type of safe and responsible exercise is going to improve brain function. And at the end of the day, it ultimately does come down to personal preference.

So which type of exercise is best for your brain? If you go off of the results from ANH in rats, voluntary, long distance running is the winner. But that does not mean strength training and high intensity interval training are not going to have their own effect on improving brain health.

What do you think? Which type of exercise strengthens your brain health? Feel free to reach out and let me know!


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/well/move/how-exercise-may-bolster-the-brain.html

[2] Aimone, J. B., Li, Y., Lee, S. W., Clemenson, G. D., Deng, W., & Gage, F. H. (2014). Regulation and function of adult neurogenesis: from genes to cognition. Physiological reviews94(4), 991-1026.

[3] Shors, T. J., Anderson, M. L., Curlik, D., & Nokia, M. S. (2012). Use it or lose it: how neurogenesis keeps the brain fit for learning. Behavioural brain research227(2), 450-458.

[4] Clelland, C. D., Choi, M., Romberg, C., Clemenson, G. D., Fragniere, A., Tyers, P., … & Bussey, T. J. (2009). A functional role for adult hippocampal neurogenesis in spatial pattern separation. Science325(5937), 210-213.

[5] Snyder, J. S., Soumier, A., Brewer, M., Pickel, J., & Cameron, H. A. (2011). Adult hippocampal neurogenesis buffers stress responses and depressive behaviour. Nature476(7361), 458-461.

[6] Nokia, M. S., Lensu, S., Ahtiainen, J. P., Johansson, P. P., Koch, L. G., Britton, S. L., & Kainulainen, H. (2016). Physical exercise increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats provided it is aerobic and sustained.The Journal of physiology594(7), 1855-1873.

[7] Tucker, L. A., & Maxwell, K. (1992). Effects of weight training on the emotional well-being and body image of females: Predictors of greatest benefit. American Journal of Health Promotion6(5), 338-371.

[8] Cassilhas, R. C., Viana, V. A., Grassmann, V., Santos, R. T., Santos, R. F., Tufik, S. E. R. G. I. O., & Mello, M. T. (2007). The impact of resistance exercise on the cognitive function of the elderly. Medicine and science in sports and exercise39(8), 1401.

[9] Trujillo, C. M. (1983). The effect of weight training and running exercise intervention programs on the self-esteem of college women. International Journal of Sport Psychology.