What’s the Right Kind of Exercise for Brain Health?

A new study looks at the ideal type of exercise for beefing up your brain.

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We’ve generally known that exercise is a key component to keeping the brain agile and healthy into old age. But research is beginning to look into the types of exercise that might be conducive to boosting brain health: running, lifting weights, or high-intensity interval training. Those are the exercise regimens researchers at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland assigned to three groups of rats for seven weeks after injecting them with a substance that showed when new brain cells appear—from the hippocampus in particular, an area of the brain related to learning and memory. (Yes, while us humans are certainly not rats, scientists believe exercise impacts our hippocampus in a similar way—as science writer Gretchen Reynolds reminds us in the New York Times.)

For the experiment, the running group of rats jogged in their cages on wheels, while the weight lifters climbed walls with weights attached to their tails. The high intensity training group were put on treadmills and sprinted at varying intervals.

The result? Wheel-bound rats demonstrated the highest levels of neurogenesis, while their high-intensity training counterparts showed minimal changes and the weight trainers showed none. The study authors suggest that “in order to promote [adult hippocampal neurogenesis] maximally, exercise should be aerobic and sustained.”

Keeping the brain healthy and happy has benefits for the body, too. A recent study from David Creswell at Carnegie Mellon University showed how practicing mindfulness meditation can actually reduce inflammation in the body.