But one of those much newer areas of research has less to do with the great benefits to the body that come from cardio, and are specifically related to the brain benefits. Humans, like other animals, have an increased production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) from aerobic exercise. While it is not yet clear whether this increase stimulates the creation of new neurons in the brain (as it does in other animals) or whether it is just that the existing neurons have an increase in connections, it is clear that there are functional improvements in cognitive processing and memory; as well as, size increases in areas like the hypothalamus.
Building from this science is an area of exercise science research that is demonstrating that the maximal BDNF increase is realized when cognitive challenges are undertaken during moderate aerobic exercise. While it is too soon to be specific about what types of brain work during exercise will yield the greatest benefit, it is fair to say that zoning out to a TV while you walk on a treadmill is not giving you the most benefit to your brain.
It turns out that the goal of the body to find the easiest way and to conserve calories is not just related to the body and biomechanics. It also applies to the brain. Whether building new neurons, increasing connections or simply increasing usage it all requires energy. And, just like with the muscles of the body, for your body to devote more energy it has to be an adaptation that is justified. If you don’t use it, you will lose it because the body’s goal is conserving calories.
I suspect that in the near future we will see a lot of video games and/or games built into cardio machines that are specifically designed to stimulate the brain while exercising; but in the mean time you can certainly think about the cardio you do and whether you are following parameters to achieve the maximal benefits you could, for your brain and your body. After all, if you are going to devote the time and effort, wouldn’t you want the most gain?
As always, let me know how I can help.