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Running vs. Weight Lifting

weightliftingDid you know that just like the rest of your body, the brain also requires physical exercise for its healthy development and functioning? According to the findings of an exceptional study recently conducted on rats, some kinds of exercise could have a larger bulking-up impact on our brains than others. For the first time ever, researchers compared head-to-head the neurological effect of various forms of exercise: running, weight-lifting and high-intensity interval training, with the astonishing findings suggesting that training hard may actually not be the best choice for the long-term health of our brains.

Previous scientific evidence from research performed in both human beings and animals suggests that exercise is capable of transforming the structure and functioning of our brains, with an increase in brain volume and a decrease in the total number and sizes of age-related holes appearing in the white and gray matter of our brains.

Physical activity like wheel- or treadmill-running is also known to enhance adult neurogenesis (the generation of new cells in an already-mature brain’s hippocampus) by 2-3 times. The hippocampus is the learning and memory region of our brains.

The latest survey was conducted at Finland’s University of Jyvaskyla and other institutions, and published earlier this month in the Journal of Physiology. In the study, adult male rats were injected with a chemical capable of marking new brain cells before being set in groups performing different workouts for seven weeks. Another control group was kept sedentary. At the end of the experiment, varying levels of neurogenesis were observed depending on the kind of exercise each animal had been put into.

The hippocampal tissue of rats that had wheel-jogged was found to have undergone very robust neurogenesis leading to larger numbers of new neurons than in those that had completed high-intensity interval training, which in turn had experienced higher levels of neurogenesis than their sedentary counterparts. As for the weight-trainers, no detectable amount of neurogenesis was noticed though they were found to be much stronger.

Though performed on rats and not human beings, the implications of this experiment’s results are quite provocative. According to Dr. Miriam Nokia, the research fellow at the University of Jyvaskyla who headed the study team, the findings suggest that persistent aerobic workouts could have similar benefits for human brain health. And, although it’s not yet clear why distance running boosted neurogenesis more, Dr. Nokia’s team speculated that it could be better at stimulating the secretion of the neurogenesis regulator compound brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) than, say, weight-training which is better at enhancing muscular health. High-intensity interval exercise, on the other hand, may have its potential brain benefits reduced by its very intensity — its much more physiologically-draining and stressful nature may be the reason it has much lower adult hippocampal neurogenesis.

However, Dr. Nokia also cautioned that these results shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that only running or other moderate-endurance exercises are capable of strengthening our brains. Rather, these workouts just seem to stimulate the most hippocampal neurogenesis, with other activities like weight-lifting and high-intensity interval training possibly leading to other kinds of changes that weren’t covered in this particular study elsewhere in the brain, such as the creation of extra blood vessels or the establishment of new brain cell connections.

Therefore, if you’re currently weight-training or exclusively performing high-intensity interval workouts, you don’t need to stop — only remember to occasionally also include some jogging, running or bike-riding to enhance the health and optimal functioning of your brain’s hippocampus. From this data it may be inferred that endurance exercise may be better for brain health than interval intensive workouts.


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