In the last 10 years, science has shown us that regular exercise improves our cognition and memory, reduces our chances of developing Alzheimer’s by 40%, wards off depression, and even reduces the risk of 13 kinds of cancer by 20%. We know physical activity improves cerebral blood flow and strengthens new connections between different parts of the brain.
The fascinating complexity of the brain was enhanced further this year thanks to an animal study out of Finland that found vigorous, endurance activities generated more brain cells in the hippocampus when compared to other activities.
The researchers observed adult hippocampal neurogenesis, that’s the growth and development of neurons in the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Study: longer, intense activity created more neurons than other activities
The Finnish study divided rats into four activity groups: running, high intensity interval training, resistance training and sedentary. Researchers found that the running group generated the greatest number of hippocampal neurons, and more brain cells were generated the longer the rats ran.
The high intensity interval training group produced neurons, but fewer cells than the running group. The weight-training group, while physically stronger, showed no significant addition of brain cells and were comparable to the sedentary group.
Adult brains benefit from exercise
“It is always difficult to extrapolate animal studies to studies with human subjects,” says Dr. Gus Peller, a primary care physician at Medcan. “However, this study supports some small human studies in the literature that suggest prolonged vigorous aerobic exercise may be beneficial for brain health.”
Other animal studies have shown that neurogenesis occurs throughout our lives and well into adulthood. At this time, exercise is the only evidence-backed activity that generates new cells in the brain, according to Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology.
Exercise directly changes the brain, says Gina Di Giulio, a clinical psychologist and Director of Psychology.
“The parts of the brain that regulate memory and cognition have been found to be larger in people who regularly exercise as compared to those who don’t,” says Dr. Di Giulio.
Brain plasticity and the ability to adapt
The late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks popularized neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change by creating new neural pathways. His work highlighted research that challenged previously set notions that our brains were hard wired at birth. This framework led to the understanding that the brain can adapt its pathways to enormous changes in function, like being able to see or hear again after loss, or recover after a stroke. This Finnish study challenged another hypothesis about the brain: that we are born with a set amount of neurons.
Don’t rule out weight training, consider more endurance
The researchers were keen to add that weight training and high intensity exercises were not to be dismissed because of their findings. Those activities are bound to benefit other parts of the brain not targeted in this study.
Speak to your doctor or personal trainer about adding endurance activity to your exercise routine.