Which Exercise Is Best at Boosting Brain Power?

Short bursts of exercise — like a game of pickup basketball — is good for your brain. (Photo: Liderina/Shutterstock)

What's your favorite way to sweat? Running? Lifting weights? Cardio? There are lots of ways you can exercise that will benefit your body.

A recent study finds that not only is exercise good for your physical health, but it's good for your brain too. Researchers working with mice found that short bursts of exercise creates an increase in activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. Early studies almost all looked at the connection between long-term exercise and brain health. This study focuses on short-term activity — the human equivalent to 4,000 steps or a weekly game of pickup basketball.

The research is published online in the journal eLife.

“Exercise is cheap, and you don’t necessarily need a fancy gym membership or have to run 10 miles a day,” said coauthor Gary Westbrook, M.D., professor of neurology at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine, in a statement.

Researchers discovered that when a specific gene in the brain is activated by brief spurts of exercise, it promotes small growths on neurons, which prime the brain for learning.

Best exercise for the brain

Woman running in a park
Practice alternating between running and walking until you no longer need the walk breaks. (Photo: lzf/Shutterstock)

This isn't the first time researchers have looked at the effect of exercise on the brain. Past studies have shown that exercise improves cognitive ability in seniors and reduces the brain shrinkage that often coincides with aging. And in one study, researchers at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland wanted to find what the best exercise was for the brain.

Researchers say this is the first time that they have put different types of exercises head-to-head to compare their brain boosting power.

For the study, published in the Journal of Physiology, researchers wanted to expand upon past studies focused on how exercise increases the number of new brain cells; their goal was to learn which type of exercise led to the biggest increase in the number of new cells.

Researchers gathered a large group of male rats, injected them with a substance that marks new brain cells as they form, and divided them into four groups based on the type of workout they would perform — running, strength training, intervals and the sedentary group that acted as a control.

The runners were given a wheel and allowed to run whenever they chose. The weightlifters were taught to climb a wall with tiny weights attached to their tails, and the mice that practiced interval training were placed on itty-bitty treadmills where they alternated between sprinting and slow jogging for 15 minutes each day.

After seven weeks, researchers took a look to see if there were any notable changes in their brains. They found that the weightlifting mice, while stronger, had no change in neurogenesis in the brain, including the growth and development of new tissue. The mice that practiced interval training had greater levels of neurogenesis than the sedentary mice, but still far fewer than the runners. But the brains of the mice that had spent their time running were teeming with new cells. Better yet, the distance they ran each day coincided with the number of new brain cells they developed.

What happens in the brains of mice may not directly translate to what might happen in the brain of a human, but the study lends credence to the idea that sustained cardio exercise is the best way to keep your brain charged and churning. In other words, running is as good for your brain as it is for your body.