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Cardio For Better Brain Function

Pilates Studios

Updated on Nov 4, 2014

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When people think about cardiovascular exercise, they think of physical fitness or physical health. However, studies are showing that cardio is also good for better brain function. The link between cardio exercise and better brain function seems like a no brainer since cardiovascular exercise helps oxygenate all parts of the body, including the brain and a well-oxygenated brain works better than a brain lacking in this vital nutrient. Therefore, cardiovascular exercise helps the brain work better as well as stay sharp. The brain isn’t any different any other muscle in the body, like the pundits say, use it or lose it.


Just as exercise strengthens the body, it also helps strengthen the mind. Exercise helps the brain in multiple ways from the molecular level to the behavioral. A study performed by the University of Georgia has shown exercise as brief as 20 minutes can assist information processing and memory utilities. Exercise helps the brain by increasing heart function, which provides more oxygen to the brain. Exercise has been shown to increase levels of hormones believed to provide a more nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise is thought to stimulate brain plasticity, by encouraging the growth of new connections between brain cells in different vital areas of the cortex. Exercise might be the key to defeating the old saw about ‘teaching an old dog new tricks’ with these new connections. The reason this discovery is so important is one of the ways to help patients recovering from brain injury, such as a stroke, is to help the brain forge new pathways around the damaged areas so cardiovascular exercise can assist with this as well as retraining a body that has been damaged by a stroke.

In addition to those benefits, cardiovascular exercise like running has been shown to be a natural antidepressant, a side effect from the phenomena known as a ‘runner’s high’. Cardiovascular exercise helps decrease stress hormones, while increasing the production of natural mood elevating hormones. This effect is also shown to increase the cell growth in the hippocampus, the portion of the brain associated with learning and memory.

Studies have shown that while cardiovascular exercise does help the brain, different types of exercise help in different ways. Exercise that mainly uses the body help with physical function and changes such as the ones discussed above. Such exercises are swimming, running and cycling, exercises that use the body, but require little from the mind as they are mainly repetitive motion. These exercises can and do help both the body and mind during and after the workout, but exercises that require mental engagement help more. Exercises such as ballroom dancing and fencing which require mental engagement as well as physical actually have a greater impact on mental improvement.

There are some tips for choosing the right cardiovascular exercise for a particular person. First, anything that’s good for the body is going to be good for the mind in general. Even a simple 20-minute walk that raises the heart rate is a step in the right direction. Cardiovascular exercise, while great for the body, also acts as a kind of repair kit for damaged cells of the brain. A person seeking to take advantage of cardio exercise for better brain function, might begin simply with walking or running, but incorporating exercise that requires coordination and mental acuity will provide greater benefits long term.

The time of day is also important, with morning being an optimum time since this gives the brain a jump start before engaging in study or work. Morning exercise also prepares the mind for the stresses of the day, to retain information and better reactions to complex conditions. A morning workout is a great way to start, but short burst of exercise throughout the day is a great way to boost concentration and energy levels. When the energy or attention is flagging, a simple walk or run up a flight of stairs or a few jumping jacks can stimulate the brain better than a cup of coffee. No matter when, what or how cardio exercise is preformed, for these reasons alone, adding cardio to a person’s life is a smart decision.
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