Let’s start off by saying that any exercise is good exercise when it comes to boosting the mood, improving physical fitness and feeling better about yourself. This includes aerobic exercise, weight training and interval training (cycles of high intensity activity for short periods followed by recovery).
But is there one form of exercise that works best for restoring brain health? New research in the Journal of Physiology adds to a growing body of research that suggests sustained aerobic activity has the biggest impact on brain structure and learning.
This is especially important for those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Drug and alcohol use can cause significant, long-lasting changes in brain structure and function. The extent of the damage depends on many factors, including the drug of choice, the length of use and the amounts consumed.
Drugs and Alcohol Damage Brain Health
Drugs interfere with the way neurons “talk” to each other – how they send, receive and process information. These changes impact how people think, feel and behave. A key aspect of brain function altered by drugs is the disruption of neurotransmitters, particularly those involved with the brain’s reward system.
For example, heroin and prescription opioids such as oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin) and fentanyl, chemically mimic the brain’s natural opioids (such as endorphins). Yet the impact of prescription opioids and heroin is much more powerful, leading to a compulsion to consume the drug and causing people to feel bad when their bodies aren’t receiving it.
Other drugs, such as MDMA/Ecstasy, are toxic to neurons, while methamphetamines over time can damage dopamine-producing neurons. Dopamine is present throughout the brain and is involved with a host of important functions including thinking and motor skills.
Alcohol use can also damage the brain, causing it to shrink. Long-term alcoholism is associated with problems with memory and learning.
Unfortunately, this damage doesn’t go away as soon as someone stops consuming alcohol and drugs. To help the brain heal, individuals are encouraged to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes good nutrition, adequate sleep and exercise.
Exercise Helps Brain Cells Regenerate
Previous research has indicated that activities such as running can increase brain volume, reverse some of the impacts of aging on brain structure and encourages “hippocampal neurogenesis” in adults or the growth of new brain cells.
The latest research led by experts from University of Jyvaskyla in Finland involved adult rats that were put into four groups. One group did a rodent-version of resistance training (climbing a wall with weights tied to their tail), one jogged for long distances on a wheel, the other did interval training and a fourth remained sedentary. After seven weeks, researchers examined brain tissue and found the “running” rats had the highest level of neurogenesis. The longer and more they ran, the more neurogenesis the researchers saw.
Other exercises benefit rats in other ways. Those who weight-trained had stronger muscles, but their brains didn’t show brain cell growth. The high-intensity rats showed some brain cell growth but not nearly as much as the long-distance runners.
Previous research has shown similar findings. Preliminary research presented at the Radiological Society of North America meeting last year found that adults with mild cognitive impairment who did moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise four times a week had an improvement in brain volume and improved executive function, which includes attention and memory.
Aerobic exercise doesn’t have to mean running. Participants in the study used either a treadmill, stationary bike or an elliptical trainer, indicating that other types of aerobic activities – cycling, swimming – could yield similar brain benefits as jogging.
We strongly recommend that individuals in recovery incorporate aerobic exercise, several times a week, into their routines to counteract the damage from alcohol and drugs and improve brain health.