In a new review article highlighting the results of more than a hundred recent human and animal studies, psychology doctoral candidate Michelle W. Voss of the University of Illinois and her colleagues show that both aerobic exercise and strength training play a vital role in maintaining brain and cognitive health throughout life.

The method by which exercise improves brain health is, however, less well understood than the physiology associated with exercise-induced improvements to our heart and muscles.

The review suggests that aerobic exercise is important for getting a head start during childhood on cognitive abilities that are important throughout life. In this group, studies suggest exercise improves memory, attention, and decision-making.

These effects also extend to young and elderly adults, with evidence supporting aerobic training as improving multitasking, planning, and inhibition, as well as increasing the volume of brain structures important for memory.

Although few studies have evaluated the effects of strength training on brain health in children, studies in older adults suggest that high-intensity and high-load training can improve memory.

Animal studies, primarily models that test the influence of aerobic exercise, suggest a variety of mechanisms responsible for these effects. For example, exercise appears to change brain structure, prompting the growth of new nerve cells and blood vessels. It also increases the production of neurochemicals that promote growth, differentiation, survival, and repair of brain cells.

Although a review of studies clearly supports the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain, it also highlights gaps in the scientific literature.

For example, the review authors note that more research is needed on how different types of exercise (aerobic, strength training, flexibility) might promote different effects on brain health and cognition.

The good news is that we have clear evidence supporting exercise for brain and body health. Still, studies are needed to learn the physiology, or the way in which exercise helps the body and especially the brain, improve itself.

The article is published in the online edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Source: American Physiological Society