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What’s the Best Exercise for the Aging Brain: Weight Training, or Cardio?

You’re probably familiar with the benefits of exercise for your waistline and biceps. But did you know that exercise is crucial for keeping your brain healthy, too? Yep, exercise benefits your brain in a myriad of ways. And you don’t have to go live at the gym to see the benefits, either. Even moderate amounts of exercise appear to boost your brain function and protect it. So, if you need the motivation to work out — exercise for brain health, and to keep your brain from aging.

That’s right, exercise can even help stop your brain from aging as rapidly, which means that the more you exercise, the better your mind power could be. Your memory and reflexes could improve. And you could be less likely to develop cognitive impairments as you age.

But which type of exercise is better for your brain? Cardio or weights? The short answer is both. Each exercise seems to offer neuroprotective benefits.

How Does Exercise Improve Brain Function?

Not only can exercise improve mood, but it can also change the very structure of your brain, too.[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7230405/[3]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2018.00052/full

When you exercise, your brain is flooded with brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).[4]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21722657/[5]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4915811/ BDNF promotes neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change and grow. It’s also associated with better memory function.[6]https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40040-8

Higher levels of BDNF are generally associated with better overall cognitive skills and mental health.[7]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24524285/

Decreased levels of BDNF in the brain are often correlated with brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s.[8]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/ Scientists believe BDNF could also play a role in depression.[9]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7174655/

So if exercise can help increase BDNF, it makes sense to exercise to benefit your brain.

But it’s not just BDNF that increases when you exercise. The brain also benefits from exercise in other ways, too.[10]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770965/ Keep reading to find out how exercise can increase the actual size of the hippocampus (a part of the brain critical for memory function), produce brain-protective microglial cells, and reduce the risk of developing dementia.

Exercise And The Aging Brain

Exercise isn’t just great for a healthy, young person’s brain, either. Exercise does wonders for the aging brain, too.

In fact, even if you haven’t exercised your whole life, starting an exercise routine at just about any time in life could help your brain function out.[11]​​https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3220305/ So, it’s never too late to adopt a habit of working out.

Best Physical Exercise For The Brain

The evidence is pretty clear — exercise is great for you and your brain, no matter your age. Which type of exercise is best though? Is cardio or weights better for your brain? There’s no point in slogging away on the treadmill if the weight room is where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck, right?

Well, as with most things, there are people with differing opinions on the best exercise choice for the brain. There’s a lot of talk about resistance training vs cardio and which type of exercise helps your brain function better and possibly even age slower.

Fortunately, the benefits of exercise for the brain don’t seem to be skewed one way or the other in favor of resistance training or cardio.

There have been more studies conducted on the benefits of cardio, but that appears to be mainly because it’s easier to measure. It seems weight lifting is beneficial for cognition and neuroprotective, too.

So the best answer to which physical exercise is best for the brain?

The one you’ll actually do and enjoy.

Whether you’re a cardio fan or a weightlifter, there’s plenty of research to back up the benefits of both. So enjoy whichever form of exercise you prefer and then pat yourself on the back for taking care of your brain and reducing aging in the process.

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Is Strength Training Good For The Brain?

Let’s dig into the research that indicates resistance training is good for the aging brain.

One recent study found just 90 minutes of weight training per week, broken up into two or three sessions, demonstrated the ability to slow typical brain aging in older adults at risk for dementia.[12]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213158220300206?via%3Dihub

Usually, the hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with memory and learning) shrinks as we age. It’s also the part of the brain most vulnerable to cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. But this research indicates strength training could help prevent the hippocampus from shrinking, which leads to improved cognitive performance and lowered risk for developing dementia. And what’s really amazing is these protective benefits seem to last for 12 months after the strength training has ended.

Can Lifting Weights Benefit The Aging Brain?

In another recent animal study, researchers induced brain inflammation in rats. Then they trained them to climb ladders with weights taped to their bodies. After five weeks, it was determined their muscle mass had increased. When the researchers evaluated the cognitive function of the rats, they found that the rats who had weight trained had restored or even improved thinking skills and executive function. They also had less white matter atrophy. And when they evaluated the brain tissue of those rats, they saw indications of neuron growth and brain plasticity.[13]https://eurapa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s11556-019-0217-2

Resistance training has also been found to improve memory, brain plasticity, and attention in a group of older women.[14]https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1135414

And one review of 18 studies indicated resistance training helped positively impact the frontal lobe.[15]https://eurapa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s11556-019-0217-2​​

Does Cardio Improve Brain Function?

There’s a whole host of benefits for the aging brain associated with cardiovascular exercise. Studies indicate that even moderate exercise like walking can produce cognitive benefits and even possibly reduce brain aging.[16]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28527205

There’s a veritable mountain of studies that point to cardiovascular exercise as beneficial for brain health and brain aging…for example:

  • Aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus and improves memory [17]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21282661
  • Physical activity influences brain health, cognition, reduced dementia risk, and memory loss in older adults [18]https://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2021/11/11/JNEUROSCI.1483-21.2021
  • Exercise benefits cognitive function throughout life[19]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6527141/
  • Walking for just an hour a day can increase the volume of the hippocampus in the aging brain[20]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258000/
  • Higher levels of total daily activity associated with better cognition in older adults[21]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30651386/
  • Active people are almost half as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease[22]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5320071/
  • Active people who do develop dementia develop symptoms later than their inactive counterparts[23]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30266303/
  • In animal studies, those who exercise have strengthened microglia, cells that protect the brain[24]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30089221/
  • One exercise session induces better performance on memory tests[25]https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2020/01000/Acute_Exercise_Effects_Predict_Training_Change_in.15.aspx​​
  • Cardio exercises have more brain volume[26]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28293467/
  • Aerobic exercise boosts brain function and structure[27]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25319359/
  • Exercise combined with heart-healthy eating could reverse brain aging[28]https://n.neurology.org/content/92/3/e212

Supplement Your Workout For Brain Boosting Results

When it comes to your brain, not much beats a good workout — whether you’re into resistance training or aerobic activities.

But did you know that certain supplements can help your brain become all that it can be?

These supplements are known as nootropics — and they can give your brain a hand when it comes to focus, memory, and even creativity!

Curious about how these amazing brain boosters work? Take our quick quiz here.

It can help you to determine which areas of your brain need the most help — and which nootropics could give you the support you didn’t realize you could get.

Click here to learn more.

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