Different Exercise Intensifies Your Brain Health

Putting together a mix of different intensities—think: adding a few sprints to your longer rides—could help your workouts give your brain a bigger boost.

By Elizabeth Millard |

  • A new study published in the journal Brain Plasticity found that mixing up the tempos of your workouts—like adding a few sprints to your longer rides, for example—can lead to some big benefits to your brain.
  • Adding both high- and low-intensity efforts into a workout can boost your mood, ability to process information, pay attention, and regulate your emotions.

The association between exercise and brain health is well established at this point, but new research finds benefits differ depending on the intensity of activity. Translation: Putting together a mix of different intensities—think: adding a few sprints to your longer rides—could help your workouts give your brain a bigger boost.

The study, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, looked at 25 male athletes who spent 30 minutes on a treadmill at low intensity, and 30 minutes at high intensity on a separate day. Before and after each session, functional MRI (fMRI) scans—which measure the changes in blood flow that occur during brain activity—were used to examine connectivity in brain regions linked to specific behavioral processes.

Although both sessions showed an increase in positive mood, the low-intensity exercise showed more functional connectivity related to cognitive processing and attention, while the high-intensity workout lit up parts of the brain related to emotional processes.

More research needs to be done, but study coauthor Angelika Schmitt, M.Sc., of the Functional Neuroimaging Group at University Hospital Bonn in Germany, told Bicycling this is a good step toward understanding the dynamic changes in brain structure and function during exercise.

This study does have limitations, including a small sample size and short exercise duration. However, this isn’t the only recent study to show interesting results when it comes to changing up exercise intensity.

READ MORE Smart Ways to Make Intervals Easier

A 2019 study from the University of South Australia, published in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, looked at brain activity of 128 participants who took on both HIIT-style workouts and low-intensity, longer-duration exercise.

They found both created beneficial changes in neural connections, but that mixing up the tempo could have additional advantages in release of cortisol—the stress hormone responsible for your fight-or-flight response—when you exercise.

In a press release, researcher Ashleigh Smith, Ph.D., of the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia, said that cortisol is elevated in high-intensity exercise but that continued high levels can block neural responses. “Interval training may allow a sweet spot for cortisol rates to return to normal levels,” she said. (If your cortisol levels get—and stay—too high, it could put you at risk for health issues such as weight gain, heart disease, digestive problems, headaches, and trouble remembering or concentrating, according to the Mayo Clinic.)

This high-low strategy also has potential for improving recovery. Another 2019 study of cyclists found that variable high-intensity exercise—which was a series of bike sprints interspersed with low-intensity moments—was significantly better for postride recovery than doing moderate-intensity exercise for the same amount of time.

The takeaway from these recent studies seems to be that it pays to mix it up when it comes to intensity. So the next time you do some head out for a ride, consider it a favor to both your brain and body to get some high-low activity into your training.

READ MORE ON: brain health different exercise exercise intensity intervals training

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