For A Fit Brain, Choose Running Over CrossFit

You’ve probably heard that exercising is good for your brain as well as your body. But not all exercise is created equal. A new study shows that aerobic exercise (like running) is better than anaerobic exercise (like weight lifting) when it comes to improving learning and memory.


Photo credit: Ryan Knapp, Flickr

Exercise is good for your brain

Over the past few years, research has been consistently revealing the benefits of physical activity on cognitive function. Studies have even shown that growth of new brain cells – called neurogenesis – occurs with exercise.

This growth of new cells occurs in the hippocampus, an important center for learning and long-term memory. The news that physical activity can support neurogenesis provided a concrete motive for getting older adults to keep active, especially to help prevent dementia and cognitive decline. It also provided another reason to fight childhood obesity, since physical activity could likely play a role in academic performance.

Does High Intensity Interval training offer neural benefits?

So, exercise is good for your brain. What kind of exercise? These days, fitness programs like CrossFit and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) seem to be the trend. High-intensity interval training programs include bursts of strenuous activity alternated with periods of mild activity. They are popular for a reason – in much less time you can burn more calories and build stamina and strength that you can’t get with running.

However, while there may seem to be large physical benefits, the mental benefits of HIIT had yet to be tested, until now. And it seems like the mental benefits of aerobic exercise, like running, win over HIIT.

Aerobic exercise provides benefits over anaerobic exercise

HIIT is an anaerobic form of exercise as it uses more oxygen than is available. Strength or resistance training is also anaerobic exercise.  Aerobic exercise includes running, swimming, cycling, and more continuous activities at lower intensity.

Scientists at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland knew that aerobic exercise supported neurogenesis in the hippocampus, but they wanted to evaluate neurogenesis with anaerobic exercise. They performed the study using rats that ran voluntarily on a running wheel, climbed ladders while wearing weights, or remained sedentary.

At the end of the study, the rats that voluntarily ran on the wheel regularly had 2-3 times more hippocampal neurons than the sedentary rats. Interestingly, the rats that performed anaerobic HIIT showed insignificant hippocampal growth, and the resistance-training rats showed even less. The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Physiology.

Go running for better memory

Although this latest study was done with rats, previous studies showing the cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise were done with human volunteers. It is very likely that similar results as presented here will be seen when this study is repeated with humans.

The authors did note that although there was insignificant hippocampal neurogenesis, the rats had increased strength at the end of the period. There is no doubt that HIIT and strength training can be good for strengthening and maintaining a healthy body.

It is interesting, though, that sustained aerobic exercise can give you completely different benefits from physical fitness – it can give you a fit memory, with more brain cells to learn with. I will definitely be alternating my fitness routine in the future.

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