Top 3 Brain Benefits from High Effort Exercise

When exercise reaches high intensities, it usually is hard to sustain. Instead, most active people reach high intensities for very short periods of time in the course of their workout. One way to achieve these higher intensities is through interval training.

If you practice interval training, you’ve probably heard about high intensity and Sprint Intensity intervals. These are bouts of exercise at or near maximum intensities. High intensity is exercise about 80-95% of maximal heart rate. Sprint intensity means reaching 95 to over 100% of one’s maximum effort. (Over 100% means that recovery requires time after the interval to catch one’s breath due to the high level of effort expended). The important thing to remember is that these effortful intervals have recovery periods in-between. While the working interval may be very challenging, the rest interval gives your heart rate some time to recover. 

High intensity intervals usually last 1-3 minutes. Sprint intensity is an all-out effort for a very short period of time, usually lasting 15-30 seconds. These high effort intervals allow exercisers to reach higher heart rates, and this make the results of high intensity and sprint intensity intervals stand out compared to lower intensity workouts. 

Many of these benefits relate directly to the body, including superior fat loss, growth hormone release, and fast twitch muscle fiber activation. But other advantages relate to how your brain functions, and the magnitude the benefits reflects how hard you worked in your exercise session. As a result, the benefits from higher intensity exercise are generally greater than those for lower intensities.

Movement is a brain function

Every time you move your body, your brain must coordinate the action. Even with simple movements, the pattern of muscles activated requires precise control. An intricate symphony of muscle activation demands brain cell activity, and as a result blood flow changes. When you start to workout, blood flow increases to your brain and this is directly influenced by exercise intensity. 

Exercise changes brain chemistry 

Exercise causes your brain to release special growth factors, and the three benefits discussed all rely on these growth factors. These helpful molecules help brain cells form new connections and maintain existing connections. Challenging intervals may be ideal for releasing growth factors because higher levels of exercise intensity determine the amount of these factors that are released. One advantage of intervals is that we can reach these intensities in a short amount of time. “A little pain for a lot of gain” expresses the power of effortful exercise to enhance how you feel and function, and the top 3 brain benefits are identified below: 

1. Find your focus

Even a single interval training session can enhance your ability to focus, such that one workout that reaches higher intensities will enhance selective attention for a period of time afterwards. These effortful workouts help your brain to better direct your attentional spotlight, as many studies confirm. 

2. Learn and remember

One of the most important factors released with vigorous exercise is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This molecule is important for learning and memory. In addition to supporting brain cell connections, BDNF  supports the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis). When we start exercising at a sufficient intensity, BDNF rises and our learning and memory functions improve. Indeed, vigorous exercise has been shown to improve our performance on tests of learning and memory.

3. Avoid depression

Some of the brain chemistry changes that involve BDNF influence brain regions involved in stress. Exercise enhances how these brain regions function. Through growth factor changes, exercise provides natural anti-depressant effects.

Low BDNF predisposes us to heightened stress responses and increases the symptoms of depression. In fact, most antidepressants work by boosting BNDF signaling in the brain. Unlike exercise, however, these wellbeing enhancements take many weeks to take effect, and only about 2 out of 3 individuals with depression will respond to mediation. Utilizing effortful exercise may promote the mood-enhancing benefits for a wider audience. 

As Treo’s Global Wellness Researcher, Karlie uses recent research findings to support healthier daily habits. Karlie earned her doctorate in Neuroscience and Behavior and bachelors in Health and Exercise Science.