By: Sarah Schmermund, M.A.
Beyond our health and good looks, researchers have asserted for years that exercise also helps our brain function, especially over the long-term. Physical exercise promotes neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells, keeping our brains healthy. More recently, researchers have wondered how this brain cell growth impacts the brain, including the already existing cells. Does the brain “condition” in the same way other muscles do?
According to new research at the University of South Carolina, the answer is yes.
As we know, exercise sparks the birth of new muscle cells and strengthens the old, increasing physical endurance and reducing our risk for a number of diseases over our lifetime, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. But up until now, this strengthening of old cells (called biogenesis) was only observed in the cells of the exercised muscles. Researchers at the University of South Carolina have found that, in a mere two months of exercise training, existing brain cells in mice were also strengthened. This in turn may sharpen your thinking and make the brain more resistant to fatigue. And, since bodily fatigue is very much determined by the mind, this may translate to increased exercise endurance. So basically, exercising the body may exercise the brain to allow the body to exercise more. Not a bad feedback loop, if you ask me.
How best to maximize this feedback loop? Recent research out of the University of Illinois says it’s the type of exercise that matters most. Researchers had study participants memorize a string of letters and then pick them out from a list flashed at them. The participants were then instructed to either sit quietly, run on a treadmill, or lift weights for 30 minutes, repeating the letter task immediately after and once more after a 30-minute cool-down. The same participants then returned the following two days, performing one of the other two options each day.
Interestingly, the participants were considerably faster and more accurate on the letter task after running for 30 minutes than after sitting or lifting weights, and their enhanced performance was maintained after the 30-minute cool down. Compared to strength training, aerobic exercise appears to have the upper hand on brain conditioning. Think of it like the “Holy Sh*t” moment for your brain; while you strain your muscles in strength training, most of the blood flow and stress remains isolated to the muscles being worked. But in aerobic activity, like running or swimming, the blood flow in the brain is also enhanced, supporting that highly attractive feedback loop.