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Last Updated on December 26, 2020 by Paula Dunbar
You may have heard that exercise is good for brain health. But what are the best exercises for brain health? While there are some super athletes after age 50, many who haven’t kept up with exercise don’t know where to begin. And what are the best exercises for brain health? Let’s talk about it.
You don’t have to be over 50 to get the benefits, either. The earlier you start, the better off your brain will be.
Physical exercise increases cerebral blood flow (CBF) and increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). In addition, it releases those feel-good hormones like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These hormones help boost your feeling of well-being, help with muscle tension and improve sleep, according to AARP (2020).
Studies have found that exercise, especially aerobic exercise, shows increased cognitive improvement in both animals and humans. It increases the number of blood vessels and nerve synapses, increasing brain volume, and decreasing brain atrophy in older adults, which is a precursor to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia (Gomes-Osman, PhD, 2018). So we definitely want these benefits, right?
But wait, aerobic exercise isn’t the only type of exercise that can benefit our brains. We’ll talk about the other types of beneficial exercise as we go on.
Types of Exercise Scientists Have Studied for Brain Health
The most popular type of exercise studied was aerobic exercise. The good news is that includes walking. And dancing! Some others are Tai Chi, yoga, resistance training, and balance-and-tone training.
Why yoga and tai chi? They don’t seem like they boost heart rate or oxygen levels the way aerobic activities do. Well, here is one theory I find fascinating:
A research study by David Raichlen and Gene Alexander (2017) discuss an emerging field of medicine called evolutionary medicine. In this field, researchers suggest that our ancient history as foragers (gatherers and hunters) conditioned humans to daily aerobic activity in their daily exploits.
Part of foraging involves some brain activity. Motor control, memory, spatial navigation, and executive functions are necessary when foraging (and exercising). The high level of activity of early man at that stage of evolution ‘led to enhanced neural responses to exercise’ (Raichlen and Alexander, 2017). And apparently that same connection exists today when we exercise. We do use those same brain functions when exercising.
So yoga and tai chi are brain engaging exercises. Now it makes more sense.
The authors also say the brain and body change with the needs imposed on it. If we are active, our brains and bodies stay active and adequate blood flows everywhere it needs it. They stay strong and even grow. (Hence, BDNF and increased volume of gray matter). But today, with our more sedentary lifestyles where so much is done for us, the brain can begin to atrophy if we are sitting too much. In comes mild cognitive impairment or even Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and dementia.
So it’s not just our bodies we exercise, it’s our brains too. Increased blood flow and using our spatial skills (knowing where things are in relation to your body), motor control, memory of how to do an exercise, and executive function are some of what activates in our brains in response to exercise.
Related Article: Best Low Impact Exercise Equipment
The Best Exercises for Brain Health
I found a study published in 2020 showing actual comparisons of different types of exercise and their impact on different parts of the brain. Several different studies were examined. It’s really the first time I’ve found something that truly compares different types of exercise and impact on the brain. Since they researched different studies, there are variables in duration of exercise and length of the studies, but the results are very telling.
It’s also interesting that doing brain exercises or cognitive work on the same day as your exercise routine, seems to increase brain function even more (Chen et. al, 2020). So do some work within a few hours of exercising and you might be surprised how much better your memory and thinking skills are.
Resistance training done once weekly (I’d recommend 3 or 4 times a week) showed decrease in white matter (atrophy) after two years. Another study shows resistance training one or twice a week showed reductions in whole brain atrophy, compared to balance-and-tone type of exercise. So this is a good one.
Resistance training could be done with weights or resistance bands like these:
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Dancing three days per week showed increased size of some areas in the brain. Their brains grew! I enjoy dancing on my rebounder to some peppy music. It really is much more fun than jogging or jumping and keeps me going a lot longer too.
Walking, surprisingly, didn’t show much change in brain size. But it’s still an aerobic activity so keep doing it. The increased oxygen will do you and your brain good.
Aerobic exercise, such as in a class or follow-along video, three times a week for 30 minutes each showed a significant and positive change in cerebral blood flow and cerebral blood volume.
Practicing Tai Chi for one hour, five times per week, the studies show increased activation and connection between certain regions of the brain.
Where We Are Now
I hope you learned some things about how exercise affects brain health. I know I learned a few more things while researching this article. It seems the more active we are, the more we help our brains by increasing blood flow, improving neural connections, and even making brain regions bigger.
It seems that aerobic activity of some type and resistance training are a good combo. Dancing makes it fun so you might be more likely to do it. I’m thinking of trying Tai Chi. It looks enjoyable as well. Let me know your routine or what you plan to try in the Comments section.
Thank you for reading today.
If you have any comments, questions or your own experience, please leave them in the Comments section below. Thank you!
AARP (2020). Indoor exercises you can do without a home gym. Retrieved on December 12, 2020 from How You Can Exercise Indoors Without the Use of a Gym (aarp.org)
Chen FT, Hopman RJ, Huang CJ, et al. The Effect of Exercise Training on Brain Structure and Function in Older Adults: A Systematic Review Based on Evidence from Randomized Control Trials. J Clin Med. 2020;9(4):914. Published 2020 Mar 27. doi:10.3390/jcm9040914
Gomes-Osman, J. (2018). Harvard Health Publishing. What kinds of exercise are good for brain health? Retrieved on December 12, 2020 from What kinds of exercise are good for brain health? – Harvard Health Blog – Harvard Health Publishing
Raichlen DA, Alexander GE. Adaptive Capacity: An Evolutionary Neuroscience Model Linking Exercise, Cognition, and Brain Health. Trends Neurosci. 2017;40(7):408-421. doi:10.1016/j.tins.2017.05.001
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