A regular running routine is a great way to stay healthy, providing numerous benefits to your muscles, bones, heart, lungs, and overall well-being. Now, research is showing that running and other aerobic exercise can help keep your brain in good shape as well by stimulating the development of new neurons in the hippocampus.
In a healthy brain, the hippocampus constantly generates neurons to replenish itself, and sustained aerobic activity may be the key to growing an abundance of new cells, according to a study conducted at the Department of Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.
The research, which was published in the Journal of Physiology: London, showed that rats that ran on a wheel had two to three times as many new neurons in the hippocampus as did sedentary animals after six to eight weeks of observation. The study found that other types of exercise, such as high-intensity interval training and resistance training, had no or only minor effects on the development of new brain cells. Genetic variation, however, does play a role in how exercise affects the brain, the researchers note.
Since the hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation, its functioning is essential for learning new skills and ideas. That means that running can help nurture your capacity to remain mentally active, curious, and engaged in the world, even at a more advanced age. Conversely, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that suffers the most damage in people who suffer from dementia-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.
If you hate running, there are other options to keep the brain cells growing. Aerobic exercise, also referred to as cardio, covers any physical movement that increases the heart and breathing rate but not to the point that quickly leaves you out of breath. In addition to running or jogging, swimming, dancing, martial arts, zumba, and other activities that require sustained body movement over a long period of time should also carry similar benefits.
In contrast, anaerobic exercises like interval training, weightlifting, and sprinting do not appear to be correlated with hippocampal neuron development, although those movements do have other beneficial effects on the body.
On the other side of the equation, failing to exercise can actually cause your brain to shrink, according to a new study published in Neurology. That research, which was carried out at the Whitaker Cardiovascular Institute at Boston University School of Medicine, examined findings of a two-decade-long study that also measured the effect of exercise on heart health. Using a treadmill test and an MRI scan, the scientists discovered that the less physical fitness study subjects demonstrated during an initial screening, the more their brain volume decreased over the next twenty years.
“We found a direct correlation in our study between poor fitness and brain volume decades later, which indicates accelerated brain aging,” study author and BUSM post-doctoral fellow Nicole Spartano said in a press release. The most likely reason for the correlation between cardiovascular fitness and brain size is that a healthy heart can pump more oxygen to the brain, providing the fuel it needs to function properly and regenerate its neurons.
So the next time you’re feeling some mental fog settle in, try going for a run. It will help you feel better in the short term, while sustaining the health of your brain for decades to come.