We all know the importance of exercise for our bodies. Physical fitness is a key part of staying healthy, but it's not just our muscles that are reaping the benefits. Our brains also need regular physical activity to function optimally—what happens to your brain when you don't exercise (even for just a couple of weeks) is downright alarming. "Back in the day, the majority of exercise studies focused on the parts of the body from the neck down, like the heart and lungs," says Ozioma Okonkwo, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
"But now we are finding that we need to go north, to the brain, to show the true benefits of a physically active lifestyle on an individual."
Exercise has even been shown to reduce one's risk of memory loss and Alzheimer's disease, even if the individual is genetically predisposed. And just as different exercises are more beneficial to certain groups of muscles, one type of workout is best for your brain. In a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease last month and highlighted by Time, Okonkwo evaluated nearly 100 adults who had at least one parent with Alzheimer's, at least one gene linked to Alzheimer's, or both. Not only did Okonkwo find that participants who spent at minimum 68 minutes a day doing moderate physical activity had greater brain volume in areas associated with reasoning and executive function than those who exercised less, but aerobic exercise, such as running and swimming, was best for brain health.
"We've done a series of studies showing that increased aerobic capacity boosts brain structure, function, and cognition," explains Okonkwo. The increased blood flow from aerobic activity delivers more blood to the brain, not only preventing the impact of brain changes on cognition but also diminishing them. If cardio isn't your thing, strength training, such as weight lifting, can also be beneficial if it increases your heart rate. Health experts recommend a combination of the two.