5 types of exercises that improve brain health

5 types of exercises that improve brain health

It’s no surprise that exercise promotes a healthy brain. Not only does the workout provide incredible, immediate benefits, like boosting your mood, clearing your head, and giving you that post-exercise high, but it also does some remarkable things in your brain for long-lasting cognitive health and functioning. term.

“Exercise in general is probably the best thing you can do for your brain,” says Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, Ph.D., FACSM, exercise physiologist and exercise researcher at Yale New Haven Hospital. “In fact, some researchers believe the original function of the brain was to help people move.”

The positive links between physical exercise and brain health (mental health and mood management, memory and executive functioning, and prevention of degenerative brain disease) are an important topic of research and discussion. We have learned so much about the real and structural brain changes that occur during exercise, including changes in brain volume and connectivity, the amount of oxygen going to brain tissue, neuroplasticity (how our neurons grow , change and communicate) and increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF, a protein crucial for the maintenance and creation of neurons), and much more.

Researchers and doctors are now diving deeper to determine exactly how much exercise we need and what types of exercise are ideal for optimal brain health. Some exercise is certainly better than no exercise at all, but the best strategy for maximizing exercise for brain health is an ever-evolving topic.

How long should you exercise for brain health?

The current general recommendation for the amount and duration of exercise, according to the World Health Organization, is 50 minutes of exercise, three times a week, explains Stephen M. Rao, Ph.D., director of the Cleveland Clinic Schey Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging. An exact prescription for the ideal intensity and type of movement to do during those minutes is still being researched at all levels.

“A good duration is when you finish the exercise still feeling energized,” says Stults-Kolehmainen. This means you don’t have to do workouts that leave you completely drained and exhausted. If so, you may be working too hard, at least in the context of brain benefits. “Cerebral blood flow appears to maximize at 60-70 percent of oxygen uptake and appears to decline thereafter,” he says. Translation? Training at around 60-70% of your maximum effort seems to do very good things for your brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for cognition, short-term memory and executive functions. Exerting beyond this seems to show a decrease in the impact of exercise on the brain.

It is important to note that everyone starts from a different location. Someone who previously led a sedentary life with little or no regular physical activity may start exercising for just 10 minutes each day and experience a similar perceived benefit – the felt impact of certain activities/efforts on a individual – like someone more active who exercises regularly for 30 minutes. The goal is to start where you are, since going from zero to 10 minutes can have a very positive impact on your brain. Once you’ve reached the physical point where you can handle more, make things a little harder or train a little longer to make more progress and challenge your brain.

We know that different types of exercise impact different brain functions. Most of the time, all exercise provides some benefit, even just helping to reduce stress, which has a negative impact on the brain when it is chronic. Consistency and regularity are also major factors when it comes to exercise for a sharp and healthy brain. A well-known exercise and brain health study looked at the brain health impacts of several different exercise modalities over different durations. He found that the brain derives different benefits from different types of exercise, and that the brain derives more and different benefits from exercise over time (weeks, months, years vs. days) – regardless of the type of exercise.

The best ways to exercise for brain health

While it’s hard to prescribe a one-size-fits-all fitness strategy, here are a few things to keep in mind that will help shape your workout routine. At this point, there have been more studies to show that aerobic exercise may be better than stretching, toning, or even strength training (again, just in the context of training for your brain).

What’s more, “exercise that demands more of your attention, demands more of the brain,” says Stults-Kolehmainen. This can take the form of an exercise that requires multiple steps (like tai chi or dance) or a type of exercise that holds your attention enough to not get bored or send you into autopilot mode. There is a fine line, however. You’ll want to find a workout that’s engaging enough to hold your attention without being so demanding and frustrating that you throw in the towel.

Variety and novelty in general are also important for brain fitness, so diversifying exercise types, mixing up your workouts, and challenging yourself to learn a new activity can help keep the mind sharp and neurons alive. to recharge.

Try to plan your exercise for the week, including various modalities throughout: a few days of cardio, a yoga session sprinkled in, and a day or two of strength training with weights or resistance bands.

At the end of the day, however, Stults-Kolehmainen reiterates what so many fitness experts, doctors, and researchers say: “The best exercise is the one you actually do and stick with.”

Here are five types of exercise that fuel your brain with health benefits.


Don’t skip that Zumba or salsa class! Dancing is not only fun, liberating and physically tiring, but it’s also great for your brain. Several studies, including one from the New England Journal of Medicine, have shown that dancing can help reduce the risk of dementia.

“Humans thrive on novelty,” Stults-Kolehmainen notes. So it makes sense, he says, that dancing is a good brain booster, because “it can be very novel, very complex, social and intellectually involved – all things the brain appreciates”.

Do you hate dancing in front of people? Access an online streaming platform like Obé or Sculpt Society that offers dance cardio workouts, dance-infused full body fitness, and more.


Outdoor cycling seems to show cognitive benefits in people aged 50 and over. Studies have shown that indoor interval training cycling also has a positive impact on patients with Parkinson’s disease. Rao is currently conducting a clinical trial with high-risk sedentary patients aged 65 to 80 using the Peloton stationary bike to assess whether riding three times a week for 30 minutes each time can improve brain health and slow disease progression. like Alzheimer’s disease.

“We hope and hypothesize that exercise reduces [negative] changes in the brain,” Rao says. “The reason is that exercise is neuro-protective and reduces the amount of inflammation in the brain. The changes in Alzheimer’s disease are clearly made worse by inflammation.

Interval training

Interval training — training where you alternate between two activities or intensity levels — has shown some increase in BDNF (that key protein for neuron function), which helps with learning and memory. However, finding that sweet spot, which is getting a good workout without over-straining or draining your system, is key.

You’ve probably heard of HIIT, which stands for high-intensity interval training and involves alternating between really strenuous exercise and a recovery period for several cycles, usually in individual work (sometimes in pairs). -recovery rate. Some studies show that one minute of high-intensity exercise followed by one minute of low-intensity movement has positive effects, but for optimal brain benefits, Stults-Kolehmainen even suggests reducing the intensity to make each interval an even smaller burst: jog for one minute, then jog hard for six seconds. This way, you’ll still get the benefits of interval training without the lactic acid buildup and other negative effects of training. really hard.

Don’t worry so much about making your workout super high-intensity, especially if you’re just getting started. Instead, focus more on sticking to an interval pattern and having variety in your workout (eg walk one minute, run one minute). Bonus: Interval training also tends to hold interest longer than a high-intensity straight workout or 45 minutes of moderate movement on the elliptical.

Fast walk

Walking has many fantastic health benefits, but brisk walking does even more wonders for the brain. A recent study showed that walking more than 4,000 steps per day had positive effects on memory in older adults. The walk is also simple, free, (can be) social and requires no equipment. If you can get outside, a brisk walk in nature has added benefits.

tai chi

Combining balance and control, breath and body coordination, and variety of movement, tai chi is another valuable form of exercise for the brain. Studies have shown that this ancient meditative practice can support cognitive growth and memory, as well as mood regulation and stress reduction. Tai chi is low impact and gentle on the joints, so it’s great for older adults and exercise beginners. It is also without equipment, guided by an instructor and can be done outside.

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