In a new study, researchers found that the brain derives substantial benefits from both high-intensity interval training and longer, continuous bouts of moderate exercise.
On the other hand, cycling or running at full speed without mixing up the tempo may elevate the stress hormone, cortisol, blocking the positive effects.
The research was conducted by a team from the University of South Australia.
The findings are based on multiple experiments involving 128 people whose brains were monitored after a single bout of aerobic exercise on a stationary bike and treadmill, ranging from low-intensity continuous exercise to high-intensity interval exercise, with the heart rate varying between 50 to 90 percent intensity.
The team found that the greatest changes in neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to rewire or modify its neural connections – occurred with 20 minutes of interval training or 25 minutes of continuous moderate aerobic exercise.
The team says neuroplasticity drives the brain’s development, from infancy to adulthood, helping to learn new skills, form memories and recover from brain injuries or stroke.
Previous studies demonstrate that people who engage in regular exercise show greater neural connectivity that those who are sedentary.
Research also shows that exercising before learning a new motor skill can help a person learn it much faster.
Cortisol appears to play a major role in whether an exercise is mentally beneficial. High levels block neuroplastic responses, yet interval training may allow a sweet spot for cortisol rates to return to normal levels.
The lead author of the study is UniSA researcher Dr. Ashleigh Smith.
The study is published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.
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