Aerobic exercise, whether walking, running, cycling or playing squash, is important for a whole host of reasons. It's beneficial to your cardiovascular health, helping you to avoid heart attacks and stave off the risk of an early death. It strengthens your lung capacity, helps you lose weight and slows down your body's ageing process.
However, there's another benefit to cardiovascular exercise that isn't often talked about, and that's its effect on your mental fitness and memory.
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During a study done at the University of British Columbia and reported in a post by Harvard University (opens in new tab), researchers found regular aerobic exercise (swimming, cycling, running, dance: all those exercises known as simply "cardio") boosts the size of the brain's hippocampus.
The hippocampus is the brain's centre for learning and memory. The larger it is, the more power it's able to bring to bear on those tasks, helping you recall information and commit things to memory. Regular exercise were found to reduce inflammation and stimulate growth, by encouraging the release of chemicals called "growth factors" related to the size of the hippocampus.
In addition, exercise has been proven to both boost mood and assist in getting better sleep. Suffering in both categories has been associated with a drop in cognitive function, so by encouraging a good night's sleep and staving off the blues, exercise further adds to the brain's ability to learn and remember information.
Interestingly, this benefit only applies to aerobic exercise: after further study was conducted, the researchers did not find the same benefits occurred with resistance training or exercises designed to tone muscle.
Unfortunately, those who dislike cardio but enjoy building muscle are out of luck. You don't have to be a runner to reap the benefits, but you do need to find some form of cardio you enjoy doing and are able to do on a regular basis.
Running and cycling are often used as good examples of cardio, especially during lockdown because they are individual pursuits. However, fitness and aerobics classes like zumba and body pump, HIIT training, dance, team sports like five-a-side football, basketball, boxing and martial arts can all provide cardiovascular benefits. Find a discipline to increase the learning part of your brain, and you'll quickly learn to love your daily cardio sessions.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and News Editor at Fit&Well, covering all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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