Which Exercise Builds the Biggest Brain?
If you’ve been reading my Monday Morning Health Tips for a while now, or have read my book Get Healthy for Heaven’s Sake, you’ve likely heard me praise any method that has been scientifically proven to increase the production of the brain chemical, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)—which has been nicknamed by some, Miracle Gro® for the brain. This mighty hormone not only stimulates new brain cell production (neurogenesis) and strengthens the existing connections between brain cells (neurons), but it also constructs new connections between brain cells (poised for the time when the original, connecting “bridges” give way due to aging).
I recently became aware of a study that was conducted in Finland*, using rats as its “guinea pigs”, which sought to answer the question: Which form of exercise has the greatest impact on the production of new brain cells? The researchers divided the rats into four groups: sedentary, weight lifting (climbing a wall with weights attached to their tails), jogging on a treadmill (sustained, aerobic exercise), and the popular exercise fad of the day: anaerobic, high interval training (HIT)—bursts of high intensity activity interspersed with periods of rest.
Expected, and confirmed, was no new brain cell production in the sedentary animals. But two things, which were quite unsuspected, really got my attention. First, the weight lifting animals, though measurable gains had been made in their strength, did not show to have produced any new brain cells…huh, and second, even more surprising, was that the popular HIT training rats showed statistically insignificant new brain cell production. The researchers surmised that this was due to the already observed fact that highly stressful situations actually cause a decrease in the production of BDNF and therefore a near-neutral brain cell appreciation was observed.
As it turned out, the exercise that had the greatest impact on new brain cell production was— drum roll, please—sustained, aerobic exercise (jogging, in this particular study). That’s good news for you and me because there are many ways of securing for ourselves a sustained, aerobic workout—brisk walking (3.5-4mph), jogging, biking, rowing, swimming, using an elliptical trainer or stair climber, etc.
Now, before you go throw out any other part of your workout routine, deeming it “useless”, let me remind you that this study only measured neurogenesis, and not the strengthening of existing brain cell connections or the construction of new “connecting bridges”. Also, the other benefits exercise has on our bones, muscles, blood pressure, etc. remind us to be well-rounded in our exercise routines (not so in our midsections).
*Nokia, et. al., Journal of Physiology, February 24, 2016.