If you need an extra motivator to hit the pavement in the morning, consider this: Logging those miles might actually boost your brain power. According to a new study published in the Journal of Physiology, sustained aerobic exercise (like running or cycling) promotes neurogenesis in the brain, meaning it may make you better at learning new things and wrestling with challenges. (BTW: We have The Truth About Your Runner's High.)
In this particular study, the researchers looked at how activities like running, high-intensity interval training, or basic resistance training affected the genesis of neurons in the brains of rats. The rats that ran had two to three times more new neurons in the hippocampus (which is the area of your brain responsible for temporal learning and taking on spatially complex challenges) than the rats who had done interval or resistance training.
Even though this study was done in rats, all that cardio means good things for the human brain as well. When it comes to the effects of exercise, human brains, and rodent brains actually show similar changes in blood flow to the hippocampus, according to Miriam Nokia, Ph.D., lead author of the study. Which means it's plausible we can apply the brain boost to humans as well.
This isn't the first study to look at how exercise can boost our brain power. There is a lot of literature on how aerobic exercise can boost memory, and help regulate stress, but according to Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a neuroscientist studying how different types of exercise affect the brain, the research on how anaerobic exercise (like HIIT or weight lifting) effects the brain is still pretty inconclusive.
"It seems that aerobic exercise is most effective at boosting your memory, mood and attention. Though the specific 'formula' for how much, how long, and what kind of exercise is best is still not known," she says. And although there's no specific study behind this yet, it makes sense to reap those benefits in the a.m. "Morning exercise makes sense because you are changing levels of neurotransmitters helpful for mood and growth factors that are useful for brain plasticity before you go into work to use your brain," says Suzuki.
So what's the takeaway? Pumping the iron may be more useful for building new muscles (lifting heavy weights has a ton of other benefits too), but upping your endurance and cardio regimen may be better for building your brainpower.