Aerobic exercise, resistance training (such as weight lifting), and tai chi can all boost brain function in people older than 50, concludes a review published today in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Those mind-strengthening benefits even provided a boost to those who were already suffering from mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The researchers also found that “multicomponent” programs--which combine aerobic exercise and resistance training as recommended by the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines—were particularly effective in boosting brain health.
Resistance training and aerobic exercise each release different types of compounds that “help support the growth of neurons in the brain,” says study author Joe Northey, a Ph.D. candidate in exercise physiology at the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sport and Exercise in Australia. “Doing both may be providing a ‘sweet spot’ for brain health.”
“What’s good for the body is good for the brain,” says exercise physiologist and neuroscientist Dianna Purvis Jaffin, Ph.D., director of strategy and programs at the Brain Performance Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas. “We know that people who have higher levels of cardiovascular fitness tend to have larger brain volume, but both aerobic exercise and strength training are important.”
A Workout Routine for Your Brain
If you’re thinking about starting a workout regimen (or amending your current routine), you can often find supervised programs through a hospital, community recreation center, or gym.
But while the new study only included such supervised programs—where elements like frequency, intensity, and duration were monitored and controlled—you can reap these cognitive benefits by exercising on your own, too, says Northey.
“Just discuss your plans to exercise with your doctor first to make sure it’s safe,” he says.
To maximize the brain benefits of working out, keep these key takeaways from the study in mind:
Include resistance training along with aerobic exercise. Current U.S. exercise guidelines recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise a week and doing strength training two or three times weekly. (At a moderate level, you can maintain a conversation while you work out. During vigorous exercise, it will be difficult to talk.)
Work out for 45 to 60 minutes per session. Researchers found the biggest benefit came from at least 45 minutes of exercise, although shorter sessions are certainly helpful as well. If you’re working out more intensely, you may be able to do it for less time. (Northey is currently studying how high-intensity interval training—alternating between hard and easy bouts of exercise—can impact brain power.)
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Exercise on most days. While the review found beneficial brain effects with any level of frequency of exercise, a regular, consistent routine will improve your fitness level and muscle mass, two things that are protective as you age.
Consider starting with tai chi. Although there were fewer studies with tai chi, researchers found it does enhance cognitive abilities and it can be good for people who are new to working out or aren’t as mobile. (The study also looked at yoga, but researchers weren’t able to accurately gauge its impact on the brain due to a lack of good quality studies.)