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Health & Exercise Forum

Exercise to Improve Brain Health

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Mar 14, 2016

New Research

It is a well established fact in the medicalDr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise Forum literature that the benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are numerous, from reducing blood pressure to lowering the risk of falls. (SEE "LIST A" BELOW) However, a study recently published in the Journal of Physiology reports that aerobic exercise may improve brain health and be more effective than other types of exercise in stimulating new brain tissue.

The relationship between exercise and neurogenesis, the formation of new brain cells in the adult brain, has been studied for many years. Previous studies have reported an association between exercise and increased brain size and density when compared to those who are more sedentary. However, until recently, it has been unclear exactly which form of exercise is most effective in the formation of new brain cells in the adult brain. Recent animal studies compared the effects of three popular forms of exercise on the brain; aerobic exercise, high-intensity interval training, and resistance weight training.

Subjects were divided into one of four groups; sedentary (control group), aerobic exercise, (moderate intensity distance running), high-intensity interval training (strenuous running for 3 minutes followed by 2 minutes slow jog with repetitions for 15 minutes), and traditional resistance weight training for seven weeks. Brain tissue was examined microscopically before and after the seven weeks. Results showed that the levels of new neurons in the brain were significantly greater in the aerobic exercise group (sustained distance running) when compared to all other groups; sedentary, interval and weight training. While the interval high-intensity training group had slightly higher levels of new neurons than the sedentary group, it was significantly less than the aerobic group. The weight training group, while stronger, did not produce new neurons in the brain.

What is Aerobic Exercise?

In this study, aerobic exercise was in the form of distance running. However, in a broader sense, aerobic exercise is any type of sustained exercise that strengthens the heart and lungs to improve the body’s use of oxygen. This may include running/jogging, brisk walking, cycling, swimming, rowing, and the use of a treadmill, elliptical, stepper or similar device, at light to moderate intensity which requires the use of oxygen to adequately meet the oxygen demands of the body for an extended period of time. The generally accepted time and frequency is at least 30 minute sessions performed three or more times per week.


Researchers conclude that, while further research is required, the application for humans may prove extremely valuable. However, at this point; it is not clear why the aerobic group significantly produced new neurons when compared to the others. The moderate but prolonged demand for oxygen to the brain is thought to be linked. They caution exercise enthusiasts not to take the results out of context. It is recommended that people engage in comprehensive exercise programs which incorporate all aspects of health and wellness. (SEE " LIST B" BELOW)

A comprehensive exercise program includes:

    1. Aerobic Exercise: For potential stimulation of new brain tissue and many other benefits
    2. High Intensity Interval Training: For sport specific endurance and strength and prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness: 3 minute high intensity bursts followed by 2 minute slow paced recovery repeats for 15 minutes
    3. Resistance Weight Training: (bands, free-weights, weight machines): For strength and conditioning
    4. Stretching, Core, Yoga, Pilates, Balance Exercise: For flexibility to prevent injury and muscle/joint tightness, and promote relaxation, body awareness and prevent falls
    5. Plyometric Exercise:  For sport specific training

SOURCES: Journal of Physiology Feb 2016;

LIST A: Some of the more important benefits of exercise are:

  1. Loss or Maintained Body Weight
  2. Reduces LDL /Raises HDL Cholesterol
  3. Reduces risk of type II diabetes
  4. Improves Circulation and Blood Pressure
  5. Reduces Risk of Heart Disease
  6. Prevents Bone Loss
  7. Reduces Stress/Muscle Tension
  8. Lowers Risk of Depression
  9. Improves Sleep Pattern
  10. Improves Strength and Flexibility
  11. Improves Balance/Reduces Risk of Falls
  12. Improves Immune System
  13. Improves Pain Threshold
  14. Stimulation of Neurogenesis (formation of new brain cells)

LIST B: Some simple suggestions for beginning an exercise program are:

  1. Get your physicians approval
  2. Consult with a physical therapist to set up a program for your needs
    1. Buy good running sneakers – not walking shoes
      Plan to exercise 3-5 times per week for 30-35 minutes
      Walk for aerobic fitness
      Begin 5-10 minutes and add 1-2 minutes each session
      Walk in a mall if it is too hot or too cold
    1. Use light dumbbells, sandbag weights and resisted bands
    2. Begin with 5-10 repetitions and add 1-2 reps each session
    3. Alternate weight training days with walking days

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body. Keep moving, eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and live long and well!

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum” in the Scranton Times-Tribune.

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College.