Can Exercise Boost Your Brain?

Strength and resistance training may have significant benefits to the brain

A growing body of research suggests that certain types of exercise may be linked with specific mental improvements, says Robert Bonakdar, MD, an integrative medicine specialist.

“If we look beyond the physical and cardiovascular benefits of exercise and focus on the brain, it gets very interesting,” Dr. Bonakdar says. “We are learning more and more that strength and resistance training have significant benefits for the mind that are quite different and unique compared to other types of exercise.”

Dr. Bonakdar points to several studies, including a recent University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign analysis of more than 100 studies examining the role of exercise and cognition, which have found that:

  • Exercise increases brain volume and circulation, and those benefits start within a few months and may last up to a year after the exercise routine ends.
  • The benefits of exercise can start at any age, including over 80.
  • Aerobic exercise appears to help with so-called executive functioning, such as long-term planning and multitasking.
  • Resistance training appears to improve attention, focus and conflict resolution.
  • Other research also shows a host of positive neurochemical changes (including changes in levels of serotonin, dopamine and brain natriuretic factor) that can combat depression and cognitive decline.

“For general mental health, any exercise you enjoy doing is beneficial,” Dr. Bonakdar says, “and the exercise regimen necessary to start experiencing mental health benefits is very doable for most people.”

For resistance, start working with resistance bands several times per week and build slowly to increase resistance. For aerobics, start with a brisk walk for 30 or more minutes, three times a week.