Moderate aerobic exercise appears to be the best form of exercise to stimulate neuron growth.
One of the great challenges facing anyone who has wrestled with depression is how best to counteract the negative effects on brain development and cognitive function that have clearly been linked to recurrent depression. Depression leads directly to reductions in the brain’s growth hormone (brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF) and treatments that are effective for depression almost always reverse this effect and increase BDNF. Frequency of depressive episodes is correlated with reduction in brain volume as we get older, which is in turn correlated with an increased risk of dementia.
This is discouraging news indeed. But there are things that can be done that have the potential for reversing these changes.
A recent article in the Journal of Physiology suggests that not only is there a link between exercise and brain health, which we have discussed in these pages previously, but that the specific form of exercise that is most beneficial in terms of increased brain cells, is sustained and moderate aerobic exercise: for example a long run, or bike ride, or cross country skiing.
The article suggested that, if you just looked at the effects on stimulating neuron growth, anaerobic exercise like weight training or high intensity interval training was not associated with any significant brain improvement.
For more information on this study, you can read this summary and an interview with the principal author that was published in February 2016 in the New York Times.
For more information
Nokia MS, Lensu S, Ahtiainen JP, Johansson PP, Koch LG, Britton SL, Kainulainen H. Physical exercise increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats provided it is aerobic and sustained. J Physiol. 2016 Feb 4. doi: 10.1113/JP271552. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 26844666.
Yau SY, Lau BW, So KF. Adult hippocampal neurogenesis: a possible way how physical exercise counteracts stress. Cell Transplant. 2011;20(1):99-111. doi: 10.3727/096368910X532846. Epub 2010 Sep 30. Review. PubMed PMID: 20887683.