We have talked here previously how exercise is good for forming new brain cells, but what type of exercise is the best? A Finnish experiment, just published this month in the Journal of Physiology, attempted to answer that question.
In an animal study comparing running, weight-training, and high intensity interval training (HIIT), the scientists discovered that running gave the best results for forming new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area critical for memory and learning.
The absolute best way to study cerebral changes is by looking at brain tissue under the microscope, and, as you might imagine, this is very difficult to do in humans. But it is very doable in rats, and fortunately, scientists believe that rat brain physiology is very similar to that of humans, so studies done in rats should have high relevance to humans.
The researchers, from the University of Jyvaskyla, injected rats with a substance that is absorbed by newly formed cerebral cells. In this way, they could count the number of new brain cells formed when they analyzed the rat brains under the microscope at the end of the experiment.
After injecting this substance into the rats, they split the rats up into three groups. One group simply did running exercise, on standard running wheels typically found in rat cages. The second group did the equivalent of High Intensity Interval Training: the researchers made the rats run at a high speed for three minutes, followed by two minutes of slow walking. They repeated this sequence two more times, for a total of 15 minutes.
The third group exercised only with the equivalent of weight training, by (!) tying small weights on the rat tails, and having them climb up small walls. Each group did the exercise for about the same time period daily, and after 7 weeks, the rats were sacrificed and their hippocampus cells analyzed under the microscope.
Results found in the brain
The results were that the rats who did the pure running program developed a large number of new brain cells in the hippocampus. The rats who did the HIIT program developed some new cells, but much less than the rats who did the pure running program. And the rats who did only the weight training, while they were much stronger at the end of the study, did not develop a significant number of new brain cells.
The researchers believe this study is directly relevant to humans, but you can draw your own conclusions. Dra. Miriam Nokia, the principal researcher, says that running works better for forming new brain cells because running stimulates the formation of more “Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor”, which is the hormone-like substance (found in animals as well as humans) that directly stimulates new cerebral cells to form.
Exercise best for the brain
The bottom line is that, if you only do weight training or HIIT training, and you are concerned about keeping good brain function as you age, you should occasionally add some running, fast walking, biking, or similar sustained aerobic training to your program.
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