It’s no surprise that exercise supports a healthy brain . Working out not only offers some incredible, immediate perks, like boosting your mood, clearing your head, and giving you that post-exercise high, it also causes some remarkable things to happen in your brain for long-term cognitive health and functioning .
“Exercise in general is probably the best thing you can do for your brain,” says Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, Ph.D., FACSM , exercise physiologist and exercise researcher Yale New Haven Hospital. “In fact, some researchers think the initial function of the brain was to help people to move.”
The positive links between physical exercise and brain health —mental health and mood management, memory and executive functioning, and degenerative brain disease prevention—is a significant topic of research and discussion. We’ve learned so much about the actual, structural brain changes that occur during exercise, including changes in brain volume and connectivity, the amount of oxygen going to cerebral tissue, neuroplasticity (how our neurons grow, change, and communicate), and increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF, a protein crucial for maintaining and creating neurons), and so much more.
Researchers and doctors are now diving deeper to figure out exactly how much exercise we need and what types of exercises are ideal for optimal brain health. Some exercise is certainly better than no exercise at all, but the best strategy to maximize exercise for brain health is a constantly evolving topic.
How long should you exercise for brain health?
The current general recommendation for exercise amount and duration, according to the World Health Organization , is 50 minutes of exercise, three times a week , says Stephen M. Rao, Ph.D ., director of the Cleveland Clinic Schey Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging. An exact prescription for the ideal intensity and type of movement to do during those minutes is still being researched across the board.
“A good duration of time is one where you end the exercise still feeling energized,” says Stults-Kolehmainen. That means you don’t need to be doing workouts that leave you fully drained and exhausted. If you are, you might actually be working too hard, at least in the context of brain benefits. “Cerebral blood flow seems to maximize at 60 to 70 percent of oxygen uptake and seems to decline after that,” he says. Translation? Working out at about 60 to 70 percent of your maximum effort seems to do really good things for your brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, in charge of cognition, short-term memory, and executive function. Exerting effort beyond that seems to show a decline in impact of exercise on the brain.
It’s important to note that everyone is starting from a different place. Someone who’s previously led a sedentary lifestyle with little to no regular physical activity can start exercising for just 10 minutes each day and experience a similar perceived benefit —the experienced impact of certain activity/exertion on an individual—as someone more active who exercises regularly for 30 minutes. The point is to start where you are, since the step from zero to 10 minutes can have a very positive impact on your brain. Once you reach the physical point where you can handle more, make things a little harder or workout for a little longer to make more progress and challenge your brain.
We know that different types of exercise impact different brain functions. Mostly all exercise provides some benefit—even just helping to decrease stress , which has a negative impact on the brain when chronic . Consistency and regularity are also major factors when it comes to exercise for a sharp, healthy brain. One well-known study on exercise and brain health looked into the impacts on brain health of several different exercise modalities over different lengths of time. It found that the brain gets different benefits from different types of exercise, and that the brain gets more and different benefits from exercising over time (weeks, months, years vs. days)—regardless of exercise type.
The Best Ways to Exercise for Brain Health
Although it’s hard to prescribe a one-size-fits-all fitness strategy for everyone, these are a few things to keep in mind and help inform your workout routine. At this point, there have been more studies to show that aerobic exercise may be better than stretching, toning, or even strength training (again, just within the context of working out for your brain).
Also, “exercise that has a greater demand on your attention has more of a demand on the brain,” Stults-Kolehmainen says. This could be in the form of an exercise that requires multiple steps (like tai chi or dance) or a type of exercise that holds your attention enough to not bore you or send you into autopilot mode. There’s a fine line, though. You’ll want to find a workout that’s engaging enough to hold your attention without being so frustratingly demanding that you throw in the towel.
Variety and novelty in general are important for brain fitness too, so diversifying exercise types , mixing up your workouts, and challenging yourself to learn a new activity can help keep the mind sharp and the neurons firing afresh.
Try planning out your exercise for the week, including various modalities throughout: a few days of gym machine cardio, a yoga workout sprinkled in there, and one or two days of strength-training with weights or resistance bands.
At the end of the day, however, Stults-Kolehmainen reiterates what so many fitness experts, doctors, and researchers say: “The best exercise is the one you will actually do and sustain.”
Here are five types of exercise that fuel your brain with healthy benefits.
Don’t skip that Zumba or salsa class! Dancing is not only fun, freeing, and physically strenuous—but it’s also great for your brain. Multiple studies—including one from the New England Journal of Medicine have shown—that dancing may help reduce the risk of dementia.
“Humans thrive on novelty,” notes Stults-Kolehmainen. So it makes sense, he says, that dancing is a good pick-me-up for the brain, since “it can be highly novel, very complex, social, and intellectually involved—all things the brain appreciates.”
Hate dancing in front of people? Hit up an online streaming platform like Obé or Sculpt Society that offers dance cardio workouts, dance-infused full-body fitness, and tons more.
Outdoor cycling seems to show cognitive benefits in those 50 and over. Studies have shown that indoor interval training cycling has a positive impact on Parkinson’s patients too. Rao is currently conducting a clinical trial with high-risk sedentary patients ages 65 to 80 using the stationary Peloton bike to assess if riding three times a week for 30 minutes each time can improve brain health and slow the progression of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
“We hope and hypothesize that exercise reduces [negative] changes in the brain,” Rao says. “The reason being that exercise is neuro-protective and reduces the amount of inflammation in the brain. The changes in Alzheimer’s are clearly aggravated by inflammation.”
Interval training—a workout where you alternate between two activities or two levels of intensity—has shown some increase in BDNF (that key protein for neuron functioning), which helps with learning and memory. However, finding that sweet spot—getting in a good workout without overly straining and draining your system—is key.
You’ve likely heard of HIIT, which stands for high-intensity interval training and involves alternating between really tiring exercise and a recovery period for several cycles, typically in a one-to-one (sometimes two-to-one) work-to-recovery ratio. Some studies show that one minute of high-intensity exercise followed by one minute of low-intensity movement has positive effects, but for optimal brain benefits, Stults-Kolehmainen even suggests scaling down to make each interval an even smaller burst: jogging for one minute, then running hard for six seconds. This way, you’ll still get the benefits of interval training without the buildup of lactic acid and other adverse impacts of training really hard.
Don’t worry as much about making your workout super-high-intensity, especially if you’re just getting started. Instead focus more on adhering to an interval pattern and making your workout varied (e.g., walk for a minute, jog for a minute). Bonus: Interval training also tends to hold interest for longer than straight-up high-intensity training or a 45 minutes stint of moderate movement on the elliptical.
Walking has a
slew of fantastic health benefits
, but fast walking does even further wonders for the brain. A
showed that walking more than 4,000 steps a day had positive effects on memory in older adults. Walking is also simple, free, (can be) social, and requires no equipment. If you can get outside, a brisk walk in nature has added bonuses.
Combining balance and control, breath and body coordination, and variety of movements, tai chi is another valuable form of exercise for the brain. Studies have shown that this ancient, meditative practice can promote cognitive growth and memory, as well as mood regulation and stress reduction . Tai chi is low-impact and easy on the joints, so it’s great for older adults and exercise beginners. It’s also equipment-free, guided by an instructor, and can be done outside.