Researchers have suggested that exercise is "the best preventive drug" for many common ailments, from psychiatric disorders to heart disease, diabetes and cancer.1 Even your risk for age-related hearing loss is reduced through exercise.2 Physical fitness has also been linked to brain health, and is an important adjunct strategy to prevent dementia.
In fact, compelling evidence shows that physical exercise helps build a brain that not only resists shrinkage, but increases cognitive abilities3 and creativity. Researchers at Stanford University found that walking can increase creativity up to 60 percent.4,5 Even a casual stroll around your office can be helpful when you’re short on solutions.
Even more importantly, we now know that exercise promotes a process known as neurogenesis, i.e., your brain’s ability to adapt and grow new brain cells, regardless of your age. Exercise also promotes mental health by normalizing insulin resistance and boosting natural “feel good” hormones and neurotransmitters associated with mood control, including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and GABA.
Most recently, Canadian researchers found high-intensity workouts helped boost memory by improving hippocampal function6,7,8 — a finding they say could prove to be an important prevention strategy against Alzheimer’s disease, the most serious and deadly form of dementia. A recent scientific review9 also concluded that aerobic exercise increases left hippocampal volume, which also benefits specific memory functions.
High-Intensity Workouts Boost Memory
The Canadian study10 assigned 95 healthy young adults to one of three groups. One group completed six weeks of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) plus cognitive training, the other treatment group did HIIT only, while the control group remained inactive and got no cognitive training. Both HIIT groups experienced significant improvements in high-interference memory.
Interference memory refers to a process where data you’ve already memorized interferes with your ability to learn and memorize new information. Having good interference memory means you’re able to seamlessly integrate new information, enabling you to distinguish the new from the old.
One example of this type of memory is the ability to distinguish a new car of the same make, model and color as your old one. Interestingly, the exercise did not improve general recognition performance, a finding the researchers chalk up to the hypothesis that HIIT “selectively increases high-interference memory that may be linked to hippocampal function.”
Fitness Response Appears to Go Hand in Hand With Brain Benefits
Those who reaped the greatest improvements in fitness also had more significant increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin-like growth factor-1. BDNF is a protein that has rejuvenating effects on both your muscles and your brain. High BDNF levels have also been correlated to a dramatic reduction in Alzheimer's risk, as it helps you grow new brain cells and protect old ones from deterioration.
As one would expect, those who participated in both HIIT and cognitive training saw the greatest improvements in memory in this study, and “high responders to exercise,” meaning those who gained the greatest fitness improvements, gained the greatest memory improvements of all.
According to the authors, this suggests “potential synergistic effects might depend on the availability of neurotrophic factors.” Indeed, the fact that BDNF is actively involved in both your muscles and your brain is thought to be a major part of the explanation for why physical workouts can have such a beneficial impact on your brain tissue.