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Want to Boost Your Brain? Add Some Intervals to Your Running Routine

New research suggests HIIT may actually protect against some of the negative effects of carrying around extra weight.

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It’s no surprise that carrying around a few too many pounds can contribute to many physical health problems, like heart disease and some types of cancer. But the effects of obesity can reach your brain, too, and can increase your odds of cognitive dysfunction, which can affect attention, learning, memory, problem solving, and motor functioning.

Now, a small new study found that your exercise routine can help combat that link: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) may be able to reverse the brain-dulling effects of obesity.

In the study, 12 participants—some normal weight, with a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9, and others obese, with a BMI over 30—warmed up for five minutes, and then performed four, four minute high-intensity sprint intervals on a treadmill at an increasing incline followed by three minutes of active recovery between each.

After the participants completed the exercise circuit, the researchers measured their body’s release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. They discovered that the obese participants released more BDNF than the normal-weight individuals did.

That’s important, since BDNF is linked to learning and memory—and obesity can lead to a deficiency in it, said Chun-Jung Huang, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University. BDNF deficiency has been associated with a risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

[Blast through a series of HIIT sessions to boost running strength and prevent injury with the IronStrength Workout.]

This suggests that HIIT workouts may help offset some of the BDNF decline obese people may face, possibly leading to some brain-function benefits down the line.

“HIIT not only has anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits, but also prevents age-related cognitive decline,” Huang said.

While this study used a very small sample size, it’s not the first out there to show the brain benefits of exercise. In fact, a 2017 study analyzed over 12,000 records from 39 studies of adults 50 years and over, and found cognitive functions improved in participants that participated in both aerobic and resistance exercise.

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