Pete McCall by Pete McCall

As a time-efficient method for burning a lot of calories and enhancing muscle definition, high-intensity workouts have made the transition from the world of performance training to the programs that help clients get results. Credited with a range of benefits, including lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and maintaining a healthy bodyweight, increasing evidence suggests that high-intensity exercise may also offer numerous brain-strengthening benefits as well. Here are six benefits of high-intensity exercise that may help improve cognitive function and potentially reduce one’s risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

1. High-Intensity Exercise May Help Build More Brain Cells

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that promotes the growth of new brain cells and the formation of neuronal circuits in the brain, and is associated with both improved memory and learning ability. A review of the literature on high-intensity interval training (HIIT) found that HIIT can elevate levels of BDNF immediately after exercise and while at rest. This means that the same workouts that can help your clients get fitter might help make their brains function better as well.

2. High-Intensity Exercise May Offer More Brain Benefits Than Moderate-Intensity Exercise

High-intensity exercise has been shown to produce a greater BDNF response than moderate-intensity exercise. Schmolesky, Webb and Hansen compared the effects of the intensity and duration of exercise on BDNF levels and found that higher intensity protocols produced a greater response, reporting that “vigorous conditions had the highest proportion of subjects that experienced a significant increase in BDNF levels.” Likewise, Marquez and colleagues compared 20-minute bouts of continuous exercise at 70% of maximal work-rate to a HIIT protocol of 90% of maximal work-rate for work and recovery intervals of one minute each. They observed that “shorter bouts of high-intensity exercise are slightly more effective than continuous high-intensity exercise for elevating BDNF.”

3. High-Intensity Exercise Increases Blood Flow to the Brain

High-intensity exercise not only improves blood flow to the working muscles, but it also increases blood flow to the brain, which is important for delivering the oxygen and glucose needed for optimal performance. Plus, increasing oxygen flow to the brain can increase alertness while reducing feelings of fatigue, which could help enhance overall job performance. This means that a lunchtime HIIT workout could potentially help a client be more productive when they return to work in the afternoon.

4. Strength Training May Make You Smarter

Strength training—high-intensity or otherwise—has been shown to help increase BDNF levels. Church and colleagues compared the effects of a high-intensity strength-training program to one that focused on the volume of exercise and found that both protocols elevated BDNF. According to the study authors, “Results indicate that BDNF concentrations are increased after an acute bout of resistance exercise, regardless of training paradigm, and are further increased during a seven-week program in experienced lifters.”

5. High-Intensity Exercise Makes It Easier to Achieve a Flow State

A HIIT workout provides the right triggers, including clear goals and unambiguous feedback, to initiate something often referred to as the flow state, which can help create a positive and focused mindset that carries over into other aspects of a client’s daily life.

6. Performing High-Intensity Exercise Enhances Self-Confidence

Completing a challenging HIIT workout can help give clients the confidence to accomplish other daunting tasks. Once a client has completed a series of challenging high-intensity exercises, professional tasks such as giving a presentation or making a cold call to a potential client may seem easy by comparison. Additionally, completing a couple of HIIT workouts could help clients realize that they can exercise successfully, which is an important component for establishing self-efficacy and long-term adherence to an exercise program.

Finally, another oft-cited benefit of high-intensity exercise, particularly HIIT workouts, is that they don’t last as long as traditional workouts, which has been shown to be preferable among exercisers. Thum and colleagues compared HIIT to moderate-intensity continuous exercise and observed that HIIT may be more preferable because “individuals report greater enjoyment due to its time efficiency and constantly changing stimulus.” Ultimately, the most effective workout is the one that is completed, and a shorter workout is often more “doable” than a longer one.

To learn more about how exercise affects the brain, check out these ACE articles:

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