Whether you’re a cardio fan or not, the popular opinion among people who exercise regularly is that workouts that spike the heart rate feel better and more satisfying than workouts that don’t. To get to the bottom of whether that means different things for you on an actual cranial level, we’ve asked fitness experts for intel on how cardio affects your brain, and how it compares to simple strength training.
“From a brain-health standpoint, we know that [aerobic exercise] increases your heart rate and causes you to breathe harder, which means that your body is delivering more oxygen to your brain, which is good for overall brain health,” says David Geier, DO, orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist. It also can simply feel more invigorating to do a cardio workout versus any other type of exercise because of the “runner’s high,” AKA that rush of endorphins, which gives you a happy, euphoric feeling.
According to Thomas Falda, PT and training expert with Freeletics, cardio training gives you a whole list of benefits that you don’t get from other types of workouts. “It has been proven that cardio can have a variety of positive effects on the human body, from enhancing cognition, to improving cardiorespiratory and cardiovascular fitness, to improving glycaemia and insulin regulation, to obviously strengthening the musculoskeletal system,” he says. Keep scrolling for the four major ways that cardio impacts your brain for more than just body-strengthening benefits.
The brain benefits of doing cardio
1. Cardio stimulates brain elasticity: Your brain is elastic in nature, which means that neuronal connections can decrease, and that new neuronal connections can be created. “That’s why it feels challenging to do something that you’ve never done before,” says Dr. Falda. “It has been proven that exercise and cardio stimulates that brain elasticity by stimulating the formation and growth of new connections between brain cells.”
2. Cardio helps reduce your brain’s response to stress: Dr. Geier points out that cardio exercise decreases inflammation and reduces your brain’s response to stress. Stephen Gonzalez, PhD, CMPC, sports psychologist with the Association of Applied Sports Psychology, echoes this, adding that there are an increasing number of clinical trials that look at the connection between exercise and how it can help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. “When you hit your 70 percent of your maximum capacity, it has a profound impact on our mood and can be huge in helping to treat some of the psychological problems related to stress and anxiety,” he says.
3. Cardio can reduce your risk of memory loss: “A number of studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise results in a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Geier. In some research, studies have found that cardio strengthens the hippocampus, aka the part of the brain that deals with long and short-term memory.
4. Cardio tends to promote mindfulness: When you’re sweating through a HIIT workout, for example, you’re focused on every single exercise and your body’s form throughout. In certain types of cardio though—think running and cycling—you can kind of zone out. “This is why a lot of people swear by walking or running for clearing their brain,” says Dr. Gonzalez. “The monotonous movement frees up a part of our mind so that creative thoughts or ideas can emerge.” It’s essentially a moving meditation.
To get some cardio in for yourself, try this at-home dance cardio workout: