Mental Exercise or Physical Exercise: Which Is Better for Your Brain?

Some experts recommend doing brain games and challenging mental exercises to keep your brain healthy. But you’re better off doing a boot camp workout or heading outdoors for a run than exercising your brain with puzzles. Physical exercise where you move your body seems to have more power to “grow” new brain cells than sitting in a chair and doing Sudoku puzzles – and you get the other health benefits from physical exercise as well.

Brain Health and Exercise: How Moving Your Body Makes You Smarter

In a study discussed in The New York Times, researchers put animals into two different environments. One was a mentally and visually stimulating environment where they had lots of “toys” and other sensory stimuli to keep them mentally challenged. Another group of mice lived in a drab environment with little to occupy their brains except for a running wheel to exercise their body. Researchers tested them cognitively before and after living in these two very different environments.

The results? Only the mice that ran on the wheel showed improvement in their cognitive power. Mice that didn’t run showed no improvement in their cognitive ability regardless of how stimulating and enriching their living environment was. So much for crossword puzzles, memory games and other mental challenges. Getting physical seems to be the best way to keep your brain sharp.


How Exercise Improves Brain Health

There’s nothing wrong with mentally challenging yourself, but you may get more “bang for your buck” by putting on your exercise shoes. Physical exercise boosts levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor. (BDNF)  BDNF not only preserves the health of already established brain and nerve cells, it stimulates the growth of new ones, especially in an area of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a portion of the brain that’s involved in memory.

The hippocampus typically becomes smaller with age, but research shows that aerobic exercise not only prevents shrinkage of the hippocampus, it actually increases its size in adults – and BDNF appears to play a role. Studies show that BDNF levels are higher after a bout of aerobic exercise and that BDNF acts as a growth factor to stimulate new brain cell growth. Who couldn’t use a few more brain cells?


What Type of Exercise is Best for Brain Health?

Resistance training may build your biceps and quads, but aerobic exercise has the advantage when it comes to nurturing the health your brain. On the other hand, there is some evidence that resistance training has benefits for brain health too.  A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that older women who engaged in resistance training regularly scored higher on tests of mental acuity than those that did a balance workout. There’s also some evidence that older people who maintain their muscle strength are less predisposed to cognitive and memory issues as they age.


The Bottom Line:

Now you have another reason to work out. Exercise not only makes you look better in a swimsuit and protects against heart disease – it gives your brain and memory a boost too. Keep working out, but do it for your body and for your brain.


New York Times. “How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain”
Physiol Behav. 2011 Oct 24;104(5):934-41. Epub 2011 Jun 23.
PNAS. May 1, 2012, 109 (18).
Neuroscience. Volume 202, 27 January 2012, Pages 309–317.
Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. “Regular Exercise and Resistance Training Are Good for the Brain”
Archives of Internal Medicine, Jan. 25, 2010, Vol. 170(2): pages 170-178.