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Cardio May Boost Memory & Brain Health, New Mayo Clinic Report Finds

Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer
By Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer
Eliza Sullivan is a food writer and SEO editor at mindbodygreen. She writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She studied journalism at Boston University.
Image by Javier Díez / Stocksy
January 3, 2020

While the winter weather may not be motivating you to hit the gym or go for a jog, a new report published in this month's edition of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings says it may be worth it for your brain health.

In line with previous findings, this study found that improved cardiorespiratory fitness was linked with improved overall brain health.

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How does cardio affect brain health?

In this study, they considered the impact of higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, aka cardio or aerobic exercise, on the gray matter of the brain, the volume of which is linked to many cognitive abilities.

In assessing fitness level, the researchers looked at peak oxygen intake. Increases in these indicators were correlated with increased gray matter and, therefore, stronger cognitive function. Gray matter is simply one of the forms of brain tissue, and the study found that in cases where the participant had a higher status of cardiorespiratory fitness, they also had an overall higher brain volume.

One of the key regions where more gray matter was found was the hippocampus, a portion of the brain associated with both memory and stress regulation. In addition to these functions in a healthy brain, decline in this region is associated with Alzheimer's, depression, and schizophrenia.

According to the Mayo Clinic, 150 minutes of moderate exercise is recommended for good cardiorespiratory fitness. Other components of maintaining good fitness of this kind are healthy eating habits and managing blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

How does this knowledge help?

With the global population aging and rates of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's increasing, any knowledge of the relationships between lifestyle and brain health is helpful in working to find more efficient treatments, and possibly cures, for these diseases.

"There is good evidence for the value of exercise in midlife," said Ronald Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic neurologist, "but it is encouraging that there can be positive effects on the brain in later life as well."

Previous studies have found that even beginning to work out later in life can as much as halve dementia risk. However, this study found that increasing your body's oxygen uptake may be critical to brain health, which more firmly links cardio workouts that increase lung capacity to brain health than previous studies.

"The findings regarding cardiorespiratory fitness and certain brain structures are unique," said Clifford Jack Jr., M.D., a Mayo Clinic neuroradiologist.

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What's next for research?

In order to substantiate the link further, long-term human studies are needed. However, such studies are complicated to arrange and expensive to plan.

This study, while it presents important links, is not firmly able to establish cause as there may have been other lifestyle choices and factors at play. Future studies will need to be designed to avoid these factors.

If you're looking to add more cardio for your brain health, consider mixing it up with low-impact options and more intense HIIT workouts.

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Eliza Sullivan
Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer

Eliza Sullivan is an SEO Editor at mindbodygreen, where she writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She received a B.S. in journalism and B.A. in english literature with honors from Boston University, and she has previously written for Boston Magazine, TheTaste.ie, and SUITCASE magazine.