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Training programs that involve co-ordination and balance training, hula hoops, obstacle courses and other unconventional elements seem to have as big an effect on the brain as more conventional exercise.Arne Trautmann/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The single best thing you can do to fight off the cognitive decline that typically accompanies aging is to exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise helps. So does strength training. And according to a new study, there may be a third option (and it’s not “neither of the above”).

In the journal Frontiers in Physiology, researchers at the University of Montreal and several other institutions report that eight weeks of gross motor skills training – a broad category that includes navigating obstacle courses and learning to juggle – boosted cognitive function in older adults and raised levels of a brain-growth chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, even more than a combination of aerobic and strength training. The results join an increasing pile of evidence suggesting that a healthy brain needs more than rote physical exertion.

Most of the research on physical fitness and brain health has focused on aerobic exercise, which ramps up the flow of blood to the brain and stimulates the formation of new blood vessels to distribute blood within the brain. The impact is significant: One study estimated that convincing 25 per cent more people to exercise would prevent a million new cases of Alzheimer’s disease around the world.

Strength training, too, has possible benefits. There’s evidence that it triggers a different set of brain chemicals associated with the growth and survival of neurons, in addition to those triggered by aerobic exercise.

With that in mind, the original goal of the University of Montreal study was to test a combination of high-intensity aerobic interval training and lower-body strength training, three times a week, in adults between 60 and 85 years old. And to assess the results, they needed a control group that would come into the lab, have the same interactions with the researchers, but not get fitter or stronger.

“We came up with this idea of gross motor activities mainly to keep our [control] participants interested in the program,” admits Nicolas Berryman, one of the study’s authors and now a professor at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que. Asking them to come to the gym and just do stretching exercises for eight weeks would have been too boring, the researchers figured. Instead, the control group followed a program that included yoga-style flexibility work, breathing exercises, walking through obstacle courses, juggling lessons and throwing balls at targets. And to everyone’s surprise, the “control” participants saw just as much improvement in cognitive function as the exercise participants.

When Berryman and his colleagues dug deeper into the scientific literature, they found that other researchers had been encountering the same effect. Training programs that involved co-ordination and balance training, hula hoops, obstacle courses and other unconventional elements seemed to have as big an effect on the brain as more conventional exercise.

Exactly how this works remains unclear. The gross motor activities (a term that refers to co-ordination and movement of the large muscles of the arms, legs and torso) clearly require more cognitive engagement, and there’s some evidence that this fosters the growth of more connections between neurons. The new University of Montreal results also suggest that brain chemicals such as BDNF may play a role.

The more general takeaway is that exercise should engage your brain as well as your body. That was the implication of another recent study that produced a surprise result. British researchers gave either regular or electric bicycles to 74 older adults, and asked them to bike three times a week for eight weeks.

Both groups improved their cognitive function – but contrary to expectations, the e-bike group did just as well as the regular bike group, despite presumably not having to pedal as hard. Getting outside and exploring, as well as learning to ride an unfamiliar e-bike, had benefits beyond the simple aerobic challenge, the researchers concluded.

Berryman and his colleagues, led by neuropsychologist Louis Bherer, are pursuing further studies, trying to isolate the distinct contributions of physical and mental exercise to cognitive health. In the meantime, the descriptions of their gross motor tasks – navigating through obstacles, throwing balls at targets and so on – don’t sound that hard to replicate outside the lab. In fact, they sound a lot like my Friday-night pickup basketball game.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

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