The Optimal Exercise for the Aging Brain

We probably don’t need to tell you that exercise is good for your health. There is an almost unlimited amount of evidence supporting the benefits of regular bouts of activity, not just for the body but for the mind as well. Recently though, researchers in Finland discovered that when it comes to cognitive function, some forms of exercise may be better than others.

What Researchers Did
Through previous studies in both mice and humans, researchers have found that endurance training (like long distance running) influences the creation of new neurons in an already mature brain (neurogenesis)—especially in areas related to learning and memory. However, because not everyone has the time or ability to train for a marathon, these Finnish researchers thought it would be valuable to see how other types of exercise impact brain health. The scientists injected male adult rats with a marker to indicate when new brain cells popped up, and then randomly assigned the rodents to one of four groups. Group 1 remained sedentary (to serve as a control); group 2 was given a wheel and allowed to run as much as their little hearts desired (endurance exercise); group 3 climbed walls with tiny weights attached to their tails (strength training); and group 4 simulated high-intensity interval training via treadmills that interspersed sprinting and “slow skittering.”

Which Exercise Was Best?
After seven weeks of “training,” the scientists found that endurance training generated the greatest number of new neurons, followed by high-intensity interval training. Interestingly, researchers found no neurogenesis in rats who did strength training; in fact, their brains were comparable to the sedentary rats. There is some thought that prolonged aerobic exercise causes the release of a chemical that in turn influences neurogenesis (brain-derived neurotropic factor). While resistance and high-intensity interval training may not impact this specific factor, no one is saying that these activities don’t impact the brain in some other way. More evidence is needed to pinpoint where such changes might be occurring.

If you want even more info on how exercise strengthens the mind, be sure to check out this recent Healthy Aging Project post.

(Feature photo courtesy of

Samantha Lunsky

Samantha Lunsky is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.