We all know that physical activity isn’t just for keeping our bodies in shape — it’s for strengthening our minds, too.
According to Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University, a good workout can make you happier, improve your attention span, help you think more clearly, aid learning, regulate your moods, boost your memory, decrease stress, support brain growth, and even build your imagination.
But which kind of exercise is the best for your brain? Running? Weight training? High-intensity interval training (HIIT)?
Well, a new study published in the Journal of Physiology examined rats doing these types of exercises over a period of seven weeks, and found that only running increased the production of neurons in the hippocampus — a key area of the brain for learning and memory. HIIT and resistance training had little to no effect.
You’re probably wondering what we’re wondering: How on Earth can a rat lift weights? (Could this be an idea for a new Pixar film?) Well, apparently, they had tiny weights attached to their tails as they climbed a wall.
In all seriousness, though, running had a crazy impact on the brains of these rats. Compared to the sedentary rats and rats doing other, non-aerobic exercises, the running rats’ brains swarmed with new neurons. And it mattered how far he ran, too: they found that the greater the distance the rat had covered, the more new cells had generated in its brain.
Clearly, rats are not people. But the study authors believe that by promoting neurogenesis, aerobic exercise could increase the neuron reserve of the hippocampus, which could improve the preconditions for learning — even in humans.
But if you prefer other types of exercise to running (and we don’t blame you, especially when it’s bite-your-lungs cold outside), don’t fret just yet. The results don’t mean that running is the only way to strengthen the brain. Miriam Nokia, a research fellow at the University of Jyvaskyla who led the study, told The New York Times that weight training and high-intensity intervals probably lead to different types of changes elsewhere in the brain. They might, for example, help you grow new glia cells (which provide support and protection for neurons) or new synapses (the connection point where one neuron communicates with another).
So, if you’re a die-hard HIIT or weight-training fan, keep doing what you’re doing. But maybe sneak in a run here and there for the sake of your memory. You can do it: just place one foot in front of the other.