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Tip 186: Activate Your Brain With Varied Training: Intensity and Mode Alter Brain Activity

Wednesday, October 5, 2011 9:10 AM
Activate your brain with different training intensities and modes. Anyone who works out knows that training does something good to the brain. Have you ever had anyone tell you they feel worse after exercise? Not likely, unless they were sick. That’s because exercise activates the brain, and new research shows that various modes and intensities activate it in different ways.

In general, with the onset of intense exercise, brain activity is redistributed from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as making decisions, mediating conflicts, predicting events, and social control, towards areas that are involved in motor commands and planning. Also, the emotional brain areas in the prefrontal cortex are involved in learning a new task and as you become familiar with the task, brain activity shifts to other areas.

The new study clarifies the effect of intensity and familiarity with exercise mode on brain function. Researchers tested whether familiarity with an exercise effects brain function by having recreational cyclists, runners, and hand cyclists (with an arm crank) perform four modes of exercise (cycling, running, arm cranking, and isokinetic) at both 50 and 80 percent of maximal oxygen uptake. They looked at alpha patterns, which appear when you are relaxed and alert, and beta patterns, which occur when you’re awake and more attentive and aroused. Researchers found that moderate exercise (50 percent of max) in a familiar exercise mode increased alpha activity in the parietal cortex—an area of that is thought to control spatial processing and visual abilities, but specific functions are still unknown.   When participants did one of the exercise modes they were unfamiliar with at a moderate intensity they had increased alpha activity in the frontal brain regions, with emotion centers more activated.

High-intensity exercise (80 percent) in all modes was also tested. When participants performed their familiar exercise mode at a high intensity they had reduction of beta activity in the prefrontal cortex, indicating greater placidity or calm, a sense of well being, and a deactivation of emotional brain regions. In comparison, performing high-intensity training in an unfamiliar activity increased alpha frontal brain activity, indicating possible overload, emotional feelings of insecurity, and fear at excessive demands.

This evidence can be used to activate your brain in different ways based on how you feel. High-intensity training will actually help relax you and improve mood afterwards, while more moderate activity can increase alpha waves that are also related to relaxation. Use familiar training modes and exercises when you want to distress, but new exercises or sports shouldn’t be ignored. Activating the frontal cortex to learn new activities can help keep your brain working properly. Plus, if you know in advance that you might feel mental discomfort at the insecurity of learning a new task, you’ll be prepared to push through it until you develop skill and familiarity. 

Brummer, V., Schneider, S., et al. Brain Cortical Activity is Influenced by Exercise Mode and Intensity. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
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