02/08/2017 09:07 EST | Updated 02/08/2017 09:07 EST

How Exercise Is Good For Our Brains

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Shot of a senior man and woman using weights with the help of a physical therapist

Overall, the benefits of regular exercise aren't that surprising. We know it's great for weight control, strength and cardiovascular health.

However, there's another key benefit that's very important to us as we age: the neurological benefits of exercise.


Regular exercise is believed to improve memory and overall cognitive function. But how, exactly? And, more to the point, what does a memory-boosting workout look like?

The Benefits of Exercise on the Hippocampus

For years, experts have been aware that exercise causes a spike in a unique group of chemicals called endorphins, although little has been said about the benefits of exercise on the hippocampus, a small organ located within the brain's medial temporal lobe.

The hippocampus, a brain area critical for learning and memory, is thought to shrink by as much as 15% in late adulthood, making it a primary target of studies in Alzheimer's disease. However, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is tackling the issue of shrinkage, and highlighting the positive effects exercise can have on hippocampal volume.

Researchers discovered that aerobic exercise increases the size of the anterior hippocampus, leading to improvements in spatial memory. Not only that, they found exercise increased hippocampal volume by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1-2 years.

Exercising for Memory: What Helps, Exactly?

Strength training and cardiovascular exercise benefit memory, but -- it's important to know -- they help in different ways.

In one study, the results of which were published in the Journal of Aging Research, researchers studied 86 women between the ages of 70-80 years old, all of whom complained of memory loss. The women were split into two groups, and each group was assigned a different form of exercise. After six months, each participant's memory was reassessed.

Both groups showed improvement in spatial memory (the part of our brain that remembers our environment). However, the cardio group saw much bigger jumps in verbal memory (the memory of words), while the strength training group had greater improvements in associative memory (the association of objects).

In other words, the key to reaping the full neurological benefits of exercise is a workout program that includes an equal measure of strength training and cardiovascular training.

What About Workout Frequency and Duration?

It's suggested that those 65 and older need at least 2.5 hours (or 150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as a brisk walk) every week in addition to two 30-minute-long strength training sessions per week.

Keep in mind that short bursts of activity are also beneficial. A team of researchers working out of the University of California, Irvine found significant improvement in memory from just six minutes of moderate-intensity exercise.

When strength training, the biggest benefits will come from compound exercises that help develop movements rather than individual muscles. A compound exercise is any exercise that involves the use of more than one major muscle group at a time.

Adopting a workout routine that's full of compound exercises can also help you move more efficiently in everyday life by improving balance and coordination.

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