TL;DR Science: Exercise and the Brain

By Ashley P.
August 12, 2022 · 2 minute read



It’s a given that exercise is beneficial for the mind and body, but little attention is paid to the differential effects of exercise on the body. From a neurological standpoint, cardio-based exercises and strength-training exercises will not necessarily affect the nervous system in the same area or to the same extent. Below, we explore two popular exercise methods, along with recently discovered correlates between the exercises and the nervous system. 

Weightlifting and the Brain

Strength training can take on many forms. It can look like using a barbell to complete a squat or deadlift; it can look like attaching a handle to a cable and using resistance to perform triceps extensions; it can look like using dumbbells to do bicep curls. Any method used to exert one’s muscles affects the nervous system. Over time, the connections between neural pathways are altered and strengthened depending on the muscles being used to perform an exercise.

In a 2020 study conducted on primate subjects completing a strength-based performance task,  significant differences in the reticulospinal tract were seen, providing the most substantial changes in the nervous system following these continued exercises. The reticulospinal tract sits at the top of the spinal cord, allowing the brain to communicate effectively with the spinal cord and the rest of the nervous system. Interestingly, the pathways within this neural region are greatly strengthened through continued muscle exertion and allow for the development of stronger neural connections in regions with frequent muscle use. So, the study found that this vital region is strengthened through instances of weightlifting and strength-based exercises,  preceding visible muscle growth.

Interval Training

Of course, high-intensity interval training exercises are attractive due to their positive effects on heart health and metabolism. Interval training is very adjustable depending on the athlete and can incorporate a wide range of exercises to increase one’s heart rate and test endurance. A popular interval training workout might include short bursts of sprinting, followed by sets of jumping rope or push-ups to further push one’s physical fitness. 

While interval exercises are great for cardiovascular fitness, one more important benefit of this exercise method pertains to neuroscience and psychology, as seen in a 2018 study on the neurological benefits of interval training. The results showed an overwhelmingly positive effect on cognitive functioning. This was shown through performance tasks on human subjects and recorded activity within the prefrontal lobe. After completing an interval training workout, the subjects actually completed their tasks faster. Physical activity sharpened their focus and improved their ability to think critically to solve a problem.

Sources: well-muscles/6192022.html

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About The Author

Ashley Pelton is an upcoming sophomore at The Georgia Institute of Technology, and is a previous member of the SciTeens team. Her hobbies include weightlifting, going to the beach, and swimming.

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