A group of researchers in Finland asked the question: What form of exercise is best for brain health? To answer that, they put hundreds of rats through a ridiculous and pretty fascinating study.
First, the researchers treated all the rats with a substance that marks new brain cells. Then, they divided the rats into 4 exercise groups. We’ve re-named each group to capture how they’d probably be defined in human terms.
1) Sedentary Stoners: Literally did nothing for 7 weeks. Just ate, napped, and chilled out. This was the control group.
2) Meatheads: Spent each day getting huge and lifting weights. How do rats lift weights? They climbed walls with tiny weights attached to their tails.
3) CrossFitters: Engaged in high-intensity interval training. Researchers put these rats on treadmills, required them to sprint at a very rapid pace for 3 minutes, gave them a couple minutes of slow skittering, then back to a dead sprint again.
4) Distance Runners: Jogged on the running wheels, logging in several miles each day. Pretty much spent 7 weeks marathon training.
1st conclusion: You’d probably be smarter if you ran more
After 7 weeks, the researchers found drastically different levels of neurogensis (the production of new healthy neurons in the brain), depending on the group.
Probably goes without saying, but there was no change in the Sedentary Stoner group. And with the Meathead rats, while definitely bulkier and beefier than they were at the start, there was no indication of neurogenesis. Interesting...
Surprisingly, there wasn’t a huge difference in the brains of the CrossFitters either. They showed somewhat higher amounts of new neurons than the sedentary rats and the weightlifters, but it was way less than the distance runners. Researchers think the potential brain benefits of high intensity training might be undercut by the workout's very intensity. It’s naturally more stressful than running. And stress kills... brain cells.
Distance runners experienced robust levels of neurogenesis. By the end of the study, their brains teemed with a glowing abundance of new neurons. Turns out within this group of runners, the more a rat ran throughout the 7 weeks, the more new brain cells it now contained.
2nd conclusion: Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is where it’s at
Running is good sh*t for rats and their brains. Obviously rats ain’t people, but these results led researchers to believe that running—more effectively and dramatically than any other exercise—stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (B.D.N.F). The more miles you run, the more B.D.N.F your brain produces.
Final conclusion (for real)
Not telling the bodybuilders and CrossFit nuts to drop their barbells and commence training for a marathon, though maybe running a marathon isn't the worst idea.
Bottom line, running (or biking) a few days a week, while still staying strong and fit, is probably a great thing for your brain.
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