Life experiments can be a powerful way for people to figure out how to optimize their routines and behavior. For a Fast Company article, novelist and journalist Michael Grothaus took on an experiment to see how different types of exercise would affect his brain function.

Finnish research published in The Journal of Physiology found that running, weight training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) altered rats’ brains to different degrees. Rodents who ran experienced the most nerve cell growth, those who did HIIT experienced much less growth, and those who weight-trained experienced essentially zero growth. The growth of new nerve cells in the brain, known as neurogenesis, is thought to be tied to creativity, stress reduction and other positive effects.

Grothaus’ (admittedly unscientific) experiment involved trying each of the different exercise types for a week, tracking any effects he noticed. He then consulted Dr. Bill Sukala, a clinical exercise physiologist, on the results.

Similar to the experiences of the rats, Grothaus noticed increased mental clarity from running, but none from the weight training or high-intensity training (where rats did have a slight increase in neurogenesis from HIIT).

According to Dr. Sukala, the short length of Grothaus’ exercise experiment probably prevented it from yielding any significant changes in brain benefits. However, research has shown that people who practice weight training and HIIT long term can see improvement in their mental health.

Dr. Sukala says that the best way to get the benefits of exercise is to choose an exercise regimen that you will stick with on a regular basis for a long time. “There are immediate benefits to exercise associated with the release of endorphins and other chemical modulators in the body, but this will fade after exercise ceases,” he said. “To get the best ‘bang for the buck,’ it’s important to exercise regularly over the long haul.”

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