A December 2019 study found that high- and low-intensity exercises influence the brain differently. Researchers used resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (“Rs-fMRI”), to scan brain networks. They discovered that low-intensity exercise activates parts of the brain used in attention processing and cognition control, while high-intensity exercise activates brain areas used to process emotion. The results of the study were published in the Brain Plasticity journal.
The study analyzed 25 male athletes who were told to exercise on a treadmill. They performed both high- and low-intensity exercise for 30 minutes on different days. Their brains were scanned using an Rs-fMRI machine before and after exercising. The athletes also completed a survey to determine their overall mood before and after the exercise.
After completing an intense treadmill workout, the athletes reported better moods. The Rs-fMRI testing showed that after participating in low-intensity exercise, athletes’ brains had increased connectivity in networks associated with attention and cognitive processing. After participating in high-intensity exercise, their brains had more connectivity in affective and emotional networks. Their brains, however, also showed decreased motor function in certain networks after completing a high-intensity workout.
Angela Schmitt from the University of Bonn in Germany said: “We believe that functional neuroimaging will have a major impact for unraveling body-brain interactions. These novel methods allow us to ‘look’ directly into the brains of a group of athletes, and, maybe even more importantly, understand the dynamic changes in brain structure and function associated with the transition from a sedentary to a healthy lifestyle.”
Study investigators say that this is the first study of its kind; a study that measures the effects of exercise intensity on specific brain networks. They believe that their findings may lead to more studies on which kinds of exercise benefit certain types of people the most.
Another study from the University of South Australia also had similar results: UniSA researcher Dr Ashleigh Smith and her PhD student Maddison Mellow found that the brain works differently during both high-intensity exercise and moderate-intensity exercise, and benefits from both types. However, they discovered that high-intensity exercise elevates levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the body which doesn’t positively influence brain activity. However, working out and switching between moderate and high paces had a positive effect on the brain.
“Long-term studies demonstrate that people who engage in regular exercise show greater neural connectivity than those who are sedentary. Research also shows that exercising before learning a new motor skill can help a person learn it much faster,” Mellow said.
These studies show that both high- and low-intensity exercise benefit the brain in a positive manner. If you want to work on your brain as well as your heart and muscles, it may be time to switch up your workout.