How the Brain Responds to Different Types of Exercise

Exercise is great for the brain. We know that different types of exercise benefit the body in different ways. Researchers now know that low- and high-intensity exercise have different effects on the brain, at rest after exercising. Both types of exercise boost mood. But researchers notice changes in specific brain functions after certain types of exercise.  

High-Intensity Exercise Increases Emotional Processing

After 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise (running on a treadmill), study participants showed a change in activity in multiple regions of the brain responsible for emotional processing—the sensorimotor network (SMN), the dorsal attention network (DAN), and the affective and reward network (ARN). High-intensity exercise is associated with an increase in brain activity involved in emotional processing (the ability to process stress and other intense emotions). This suggests that the brains of people who do high-intensity exercise may be better at processing difficult emotions compared to people who do not exercise or who do not do any high-intensity exercise. 

Low-Intensity Exercise Increases Cognitive Processing

After 30 minutes of low-intensity exercise (walking on a treadmill), study participants showed an increase in activity in the part of the brain responsible for executive functions—the fronto-parietal network (FPN) regions. This suggests that low-intensity exercise improves the brain’s ability to perform executive functions. Examples of executive functions include the ability to:

  • Concentrate
  • Regulate emotion and control behavior
  • Change one’s perspective
  • Adapt to new tasks quickly

What’s the Difference Between Low- and High-Intensity Exercise?

Low intensity and high-intensity exercise will look different for most people. That’s because every person has a different fitness level and health history. The most accurate way to measure the intensity of an exercise is through heart rate. For example, performing high-intensity exercise requires 77-93% of your maximum heart rate. The American Heart Association provides a guide for how to calculate your maximum heart rate according to your age. 

For those who don’t have access to a heart monitor, there is a way to gauge intensity through a simpler test, called the “talk test.” For example, During high-intensity exercise, it is not possible to say more than a few words before needing to take a breath, while during low-intensity exercise, it is easy to carry on a conversation without having to stop to take a breath. 

Get Started With a Well-Rounded Exercise Routine

If you currently do not exercise and are interested in starting an exercise routine, consider visiting your doctor first, especially if you have been diagnosed with a chronic condition like cardiovascular disease, diabetes (type 1 and type 2), or high blood pressure. Your doctor can help you understand the best types of physical activity to start with. He/she can also help you understand how intense your workouts should be according to your heart rate—doing too much high-intensity exercise can lead to injuries.

To create a well-rounded exercise plan, incorporate different types of physical activity into your routine. Examples of high-intensity exercise include running, cycling, and jump rope. Examples of low-intensity exercise include walking, swimming, and Thai Chi. But ultimately, the best types of exercise are those that are enjoyable and can be done on a near-daily basis.