At the macro level, aerobic exercise is linked to increases in grey and white matter ( brain volume in general), in multiple brain regions, including the temporal cortex and hippocampus (a brain region critical for long-term memory formation, time-dependent memory, spatial memory, and others), and prefrontal cortex (a brain region critical for executive control, creative/abstract thought, and other processes)3,4,5These increases in brain volume are predictive of cognitive performance in adults.
At the cellular and molecular level, exercise has been shown to increase hippocampal neurogenesis, which is necessary for the formation of certain types of memory.6Exercise also increases angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels) in the brain and synaptogenesis (the formation of neural connections).4
Regarding neuroprotection, one study found that exercise reverses the harmful effects of a high-fat diet on the brain health.7Another study demonstrated that exercise could reverse MDMA-induced cognitive and mitochondrial deficits.8
Given the wealth of knowledge that exercise, in general, has many positive benefits on brain health, the next question is what types of exercise are best. An interesting 2016 study demonstrated that neurogenesis increases during sustained aerobic exercise, but not during weight training, and to a lesser extent during high-intensity interval training.9However, the authors could not rule out other benefits of weight training and interval training, such as synaptogenesis and angiogenesis, as these were not measured. However, a 2016 study in humans, demonstrated that high-intensity interval training, can acutely improve performance on certain cognitive tests and increase circulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
Exercise, in general, is incredibly beneficial for brain health. However, recent evidence suggests that specific types of exercise may exert differential benefits for brain health. This is an area that needs much more investigation. However, the incorporation of long-term, aerobic exercise appears to have an especially strong impact on neurogenesis, and this type of exercise should be incorporated into an optimal regimen.
Etnier, J. L., Salazar, W., Landers, D. M., Petruzzello, S. J., Han, M., & Nowell, P. (1997). The Inﬂuence of Physical Fitness and Exercise Upon Cognitive Functioning: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 19(3), 249-277.
Colcombe, S. J., Erickson, K. I., Scalf, P. E., Kim, J. S., Prakash, R., McAuley, E., . . . Kramer, A. F. (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 61(11), 1166-1170.
Colcombe, S. J., Kramer, A. F., Erickson, K. I., Scalf, P., McAuley, E., Cohen, N. J., . . . Elavsky, S. (2004). Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 101(9), 3316-3321. doi:10.1073/pnas.0400266101
Molteni, R., Wu, A., Vaynman, S., Ying, Z., Barnard, R. J., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2004). Exercise reverses the harmful effects of consumption of a high-fat diet on synaptic and behavioral plasticity associated to the action of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Neuroscience, 123(2), 429-440.
Taghizadeh, G., Pourahmad, J., Mehdizadeh, H., Foroumadi, A., Torkaman-Boutorabi, A., Hassani, S., . . . Sharifzadeh, M. (2016). Protective effects of physical exercise on MDMA-induced cognitive and mithochondrial impairment. Free Radic Biol Med. doi:10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2016.07.018
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. J Physiol, 594(7), 1855-1873. doi:10.1113/jp271552
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