If your New Year’s resolution to make exercise part of your regular routine didn’t stick during the cold winter months, don’t worry – spring is the perfect time to recommit to fitness. Not only will your body thank you, your brain will too. Physical activity can help improve your overall health today and delay the onset of cognitive decline (including dementia) later in life.
In fact, a systematic review of data found that higher levels of physical activity and less sedentary behavior is linked to better cognition—the ability to think, learn and remember—among older adults. The Centers for Disease Control recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (30 minutes a day, five days a week) and two days of muscle strengthening activity per week.
Evidence is also growing for the benefits of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that individuals spending even as little as six to nine minutes in more vigorous activities compared to sitting, sleeping, or gentle activities, had higher cognition scores.
So, what does this tell us about the best types of exercise for brain health? While research hasn’t provided a definitive answer to this question yet, we do know that what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Current research suggests that several types of movement—like walking, dancing, tai chi, yoga and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)—all have unique benefits for the brain.
Best Exercises for Brain Health
From walking, jogging, and running to stair climbing and many types of dancing, cardiovascular exercise has many brain-boosting benefits, like improving blood flow to the brain, reducing inflammation, and lowering levels of stress hormones. To maximize your cardio workouts, vary your intervals and try new, challenging activities whenever possible. This offers the compound benefit of working your thinking skills while also working out your body. While there is no clear winner for the best type of cardio workout, challenging yourself is the key. And the good news is, it’s never too late to start. A recent pilot study published by The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that people with early cognitive decline scored better on cognitive tests after following a year-long moderate-to-vigorous cardio program than those who only followed a stretching routine.
Learning to practice the unfamiliar movements of yoga teaches you new skills and may actually create new neural pathways in the brain. A 2016 UCLA study found that adults 55 and older who participated in a 12-week program that included an hour of meditative yoga once a week combined with 12 minutes of at-home meditation, significantly improved their verbal memory – the ability to remember word lists. Their visual-spatial memory – the ability to find and remember locations – improved as well.
Tai Chi is another great form of exercise because it combines mental focus with movement, making the brain think about what comes next while the body stays active. In fact, research has shown that older adults who practiced tai chi for 12 weeks also showed a greater ability to multitask than those who didn’t.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
If you’re looking for a new way to challenge yourself, HIIT workouts may have the most brain-boosting effects of all. The repetition of increasing your heart rate and slowing it back down in a HIIT workout elevates a protein in the brain that helps keep brain cells healthy. HIIT workouts have also been shown to reduce inflammation that can affect the brain and help prevent age-related cognitive problems. This study, published in Brain Sciences compared the benefits of HIIT training to Moderate Intensity Continuous Exercise (MICE) among young adults and found that HIIT training was a better workout to improve cognitive function than MICE training.