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Neurologists Say This Is The Best Workout For Brain Health, In Case You're Curious

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April 22, 2021

We know that exercise is stellar for brain health (we have a whole article discussing the very topic!), and a good sweat can even help generate new neurons in the hippocampus1—aka, the brain region associated with memory, learning, and emotions. But when it comes to the different types of movement—running, squats, yoga, et al.—does one workout reign supreme?

Of course, any type of movement that gets your blood flowing is brain-healthy—we like to say here at mbg, the healthiest exercise for you is the one you love. But if neurologists Dean Sherzai, M.D., and Ayesha Sherzai, M.D., had to pick a favorite? Well, it would be stairs. 

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The best exercise for brain health, according to the Sherzais. 

In terms of growing BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor2), a molecule that can actually grow brain cells, "leg strength is by far the most important," notes Dean. In fact, research shows that using the legs, particularly in weight-bearing exercise, sends signals to the brain that are crucial for producing healthy neural cells3. Another 2015 study showed that out of 324 healthy older women, those with stronger leg power had fewer brain changes associated with cognitive aging4 after 10 years. "It's almost like bigger legs, bigger brain," Ayesha adds. 

So what, specifically, makes stairs so sublime? Well, not only do they target leg strength (a nod to the research mentioned above), but there's also an aerobic component to it. Many experts believe aerobic (read: cardio) exercise is the best for your brain since it increases your heart rate, which means it pumps more oxygen to your body and brain. "I think [stairs] may be one of the healthiest exercises that I can think of," Dean says. 

How long should you climb stairs?

You may be thinking: How long should I climb stairs to reap these benefits? According to the Sherzais, any amount that gets your blood pumping is great for brain health—so the specific time may vary depending on your personal workout habits.  

Of course, you can calculate just how much your heart rate increases (with wearable monitors and the like), but in case you don't have that tech on hand, Ayesha recommends noticing when you're out of breath. "As soon as you feel that you have difficulty finishing a sentence, you're panting, and you're breaking a sweat, I think that's a great place to be," she notes. "That's a great place where your BDNFs are flushing your body." 

Although, if you do choose to climb stairs (without a machine, we should add), be super careful trotting down: "There's more damage to the menisci and the ligaments going down," Dean notes. So be gentle during your reps.

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The takeaway. 

While the Sherzais love a good stair workout for brain health, just remember that the "healthiest" exercise is the one you love—because that means you'll stick to it consistently. If that happens to be a nonaerobic exercise, like yoga, so be it! You can certainly find some research to tout its positive effects on the brain, too

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