Cardio Affects Your Brain in Some Pretty Incredible Ways (Science Says So!)

Love it or hate it, there's no denying exercise is good for your body. Regular aerobic exercise (a.k.a. cardio) has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But it's also good for your brain, helping you clear the mental cobwebs and potentially boosting productivity.

Mounting evidence shows that those cerebral effects aren't just short term. Increased blood flow to the brain, among other factors, has a physiological impact that can improve cognitive function, according to the World Health Organization's (WHO) 2019

Benefits of Aerobic Exercise for Brain Health

The idea that exercise strengthens the mind is nothing new. An article published back in 1887 in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal states that exercise "may be made to contribute to brain growth, and to the symmetrical development of the mental faculties." Fast forward 130 years and researchers still aren't exactly sure how these benefits work — but they're learning. Cynthia Green, PhD, president of Total Brain Health and assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says it's likely a combination of factors, including better blood flow to the brain and better management of risk factors such as hypertension and excess weight.

Here are a few other factors that science says make a big difference:

1. May Reduce Brain Inflammation

Widespread chronic inflammation in the body contributes to the development of diseases like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It also affects the brain and can lead to compromised cognitive function, mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's.

But aerobic exercise is a powerful tool for suppressing inflammation in the body. A March 2017 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that just 20 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise decreased markers of inflammation in 47 healthy volunteers.

And when researchers of a September 2015 study published in Journal of Inflammation looked at the effects of aerobic exercise on sleep-deprived rats, they found that regular aerobic exercise decreased pro-inflammatory responses in the rats' hippocampal region — the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning and emotion.

The researchers concluded that exercise has a neuroprotective effect that can counter hippocampal inflammation due to sleep deprivation. For those who experience sleep deprivation, that's good news. However, it doesn't mean it's OK to get less sleep as long as you exercise. Sleep plays a major role in memory processing and brain plasticity, according to the authors of the study.

2. Can Boost Brain Function

The brain uses about 50 percent of the glucose energy in the body, and it relies on glucose metabolism for optimal functioning. Abnormalities in glucose metabolism in the brain can affect a number of neurological and psychiatric disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

Regular moderate-intensity exercise can also improve glucose metabolism in the brain, according to results of a June 2017 study published in Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. The study involved 93 late middle-age adults at high genetic risk of the disease. Researchers measured the daily activity of participants using accelerometers that detected light, moderate and strenuous activity, and then analyzed the data.

Researchers found that moderate-intensity activity was associated with improved glucose metabolism. In addition, those who engaged in moderate activity for more than 68 minutes each day showed greater results than those who spent less time exercising.

3. Helps Your Brain Process Information

Comprising more than 50 percent of the brain, white matter connects the different regions of the brain so they can communicate. Neuronal fibers covered in electrical insulation called myelin make this communication fast and efficient, so you can process information quickly and learn new things faster.

When the formation of new myelin — called myelination — slows or stops, it affects cognitive function. It's also been associated with psychological disorders including depression and schizophrenia.

The good news is that myelin production can be stimulated through physical exercise. A December 2017 study in Journal of Alzheimer's Disease examined the correlation between cardiorespiratory fitness and white matter integrity in 81 older adults, some with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. MCI results in a slight reduction in memory and thinking skills, and it affects 15 to 20 percent of adults over the age of 65, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Participants were assessed using VO2 aerobic testing — the gold standard for measuring cardiovascular fitness — and also completed memory and reasoning tests. Researchers examined their brains using a specialized brain scan to assess white matter fiber integrity and found that higher levels of cardiovascular fitness correlated with increased white matter integrity and better cognitive performance among the participants with mild impairment.

4. May Improve Memory and Learning

The WHO 2019 guidelines recommend exercise as an intervention that can help reduce a person's risk of cognitive decline. Aerobic exercise, specifically, has been shown to have an even more positive effect than other forms of fitness.

The hippocampus is the center of learning, memory and emotion in the brain, and it's prone to shrinking with age. A loss of volume in the hippocampus can result in compromised verbal memory and learning ability. A February 2015 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that regular aerobic exercise appears to increase hippocampal volume in women, who are more at risk of hippocampal shrinkage than men.

In the study, 86 females between the ages of 70 and 80 with probable mild cognitive impairment were randomly assigned to a six-week program of aerobic training, resistance training or balance and tone training. MRI scans before and after the program showed significantly improved left, right and total hippocampal volumes in the aerobic training group.

Similarly, a small April 2019 study published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society tested the effects of aerobic training on cognitive function. This study didn't assess hippocampal volume specifically, but rather, tested the impact of exercise on semantic memory — the long term memory your brain develops by learning, rather than personal experience.

The test subjects were split into a cycling and control group. After a 30-minute workout (or rest for control), both groups were given a memory test. The researchers found greater brain activation with the post-exercise group, rather than those that did not work out.

5. Helps Promote Healthy Brain Aging

Like everything else in your body, your brain is subject to the negative effects of aging. But aerobic exercise can help with that too! A January 2020 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings reported on the link between cardiovascular exercise and decelerated brain aging and cognitive decline.

Of the more than 2,000 adults who participated, those who did cardio regularly were able to preserve more of their gray matter and total brain volume than those who didn't. Your brain's gray matter is particularly important in facilitating various motor and cognitive functions, including muscle control, memory and decision making.

These findings don't just apply to young people who've been exercising for a while. "Another important feature of the study is that these results may apply to older adults, as well," Ronald Petersen, MD, a Mayo Clinic neurologist and study author said in a press release. "There is good evidence for the value of exercise in midlife, but it is encouraging that there can be positive effects on the brain in later life as well."

So it's never too late to start exercising and reaping the brain-boosting benefits!

Not surprisingly, exercise has been shown to be just as important for your brain as it is for your body.

"Activities — both cognitive and physical — are clearly protective for our brains," says Dr. Michael Harrington, Director of Neurosciences at Huntington Medical Research Institutes in Pasadena, California.

Being physically active increases the brain's blood supply, protects against mental decline and neurodegenerative diseases and encourages the growth and development of new neurons, among other benefits.

And it doesn't take much. A study from the University of Georgia found that just 20 minutes of exercise a day can improve the brain's information-processing and memory functions. So, what are you waiting for?

1. Ballroom Dancing

Your foxtrot and tango may have brain benefits beyond the dance floor!

According to an academic paper in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, participants in a weekly, hour-long dance class were found to have "significant improvements of performance…in cognition/attention (memory, visuospatial ability, language and attention), reaction times, sensory-motor performance, posture and lifestyle" after six months in the class.

Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that dance was the only physical activity out of 12 studies that lowered participants' risk of dementia_._Dancing is so beneficial because it not only requires remembering specific movements, coordinating with a partner and spatial awareness, but it also integrates music and social interaction — both of which have been shown to benefit the brain on their own. 

1. Balanced-Based Exercises

From BOSU balls to slacklines, balance beams to wobble boards, exercises that challenge your sense of balance and force you to focus can lead to better brain health. Giselle Petzinger, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical neurology at Keck Medicine of USC says these kinds of cognitive engagement exercises "force you to learn new skills and control your body in space. This improves your motor skills and the circuitry within your brain."

This can carry over into different aspects of your life.

"Paddleboarding, for example, is great for cognitive engagement since it is a skill-based exercise. You are constantly challenged as you try to balance and propel yourself in a certain direction." Your center of gravity is largely governed by your cerebellum, an area at the base of the brain that also assists with motor control and coordination. Recent research shows that the cerebellum also plays an important role in cognitive processing and emotional control.

Beyond decreasing stress, anxiety and back pain, a literature review on the impact of yoga on brain waves found that yoga caused increases in the brain's gray matter — where most of the brain's neurons are.

It's also the part involved with tasks like muscle control, sensory perception, memory and decision-making — allowing the yoga practice to protect the brain from some age-related cognitive declines.

Yoga also was found to increase activity in the amygdala, which controls your emotions and motivation, as well as the frontal cortex, which controls motor function, problem-solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation and judgment.

Talk about enlightenment!

4. Running

Whether you're a daily walker or weekend runner, pounding the pavement will boost your brainpower as well as your body.

"When you engage in cardiovascular activities, such as running or biking, it increases blood flow to the brain and improves trophic factors, creating an environment that allows the brain to perform efficiently," says Petzinger.

A study published in the journal Brain also found that running increases the number and complexity of the nerve cells that receive and transmit messages to the cell, decreases inflammation in nerve tissue and elevates the level of certain important brain-derived proteins.

The study suggests that while mild to moderate levels of running could preserve cognitive functions, moderate to high-intensity training may even have the ability to improve the brain. 

5. Sex

Can a roll in the hay make you smarter? Perhaps.

One study out of the University of Maryland found that regular sexual activity improved cognitive function and even created new neurons in the brain, while other research has found that adults with active sex lives had better memory recall.

Findings from Barry R. Komisaruk, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at Rutgers, found that, for women, an orgasm activates multiple areas of the brain at once, making that "Big O" so much more beneficial for your brain than that crossword puzzle.

6. Tai Chi

Once a Chinese martial art form for self-defense, tai chi is now promoted as a low-impact exercise option that relies on a series of slow, controlled, fluid movements that challenge the body and mind.

In addition to improving balance, stability and mood, research suggests that tai chi can boost your executive functions, an umbrella term for cognitive abilities such as planning, working memory, attention, problem-solving, verbal reasoning and task switching.

Its combination of mild aerobic activity and agility, along with choreographed movements and coordinating those movements with the breath, impact multiple parts of the brain at the same time.

A 2014 study supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that regularly practicing tai chi even offers brain benefits for those who show mild cognitive impairment to dementia.

7. Weightlifting

Here's another reason to figure out the weight room at your gym: A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that six months of twice-weekly resistance training for participants with some cognitive decline enhanced their attention, memory and brain plasticity compared with people who just performed balance and toning exercises.

Interestingly, those with no prior cognitive decline took 12 months of biweekly weights to see results, suggesting that resistance training offers mental benefits more quickly for those already seeing some signs of mental decline.

Another literature review out of the University of New Mexico confirmed the same brain bonuses as well lessening depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue. Choose from free weights, weight machines or body-weight suspension-training exercises like TRX to boost your brainpower.

8. Breathing Exercises

While breathing exercises like those found in meditation and qigong are pretty low on the strenuous physical activity scale, they have shown to have a variety of positive impacts on the brain.

The benefits are threefold: Meditation works to decrease stress and anxiety (which can negatively impact the brain), stall age-related cognitive declines and improve other brain functions.

A study out of Harvard found that mindfulness mediation can actually increase the thickness of the hippocampus, which controls your memory and learning, while another discovered that practitioners of Vihangam yoga meditation preformed better on a wide range of cognitive tests compared to non-meditators.

Other research published by the National Institute of Health found that meditation may slow or even reverse age-related changes that normally occur in the brain and that meditators had more brain folds than non-meditators, which may increase the brain's ability to process information.

So while you might not break a sweat with your Om-time, know that your brain is getting a major boost.



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