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An abundance of scientific data demonstrates that regular exercise improves overall physical health. Findings from a new study demonstrate how different exercise intensities influence brain function.

The study involved 22 young men (average age, 27 years) who exercised regularly. Each of the men completed questionnaires and underwent tests to assess their mood, mental health, and cognitive function. Then the men engaged in either low or high intensity exercise (relative to each individual’s fitness level) on a treadmill for 30 minutes, with the two exercise periods separated by several days. The low-intensity exercise was performed at 35 percent under the lactate threshold (the point at which an increase in blood lactate concentration of 0.4 mmol/l above the baseline is observed). The high-intensity exercise was performed at 20 percent above the lactate threshold.

Although both forms of exercise improved the men’s reported moods, resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging provided insights into how the different exercise intensities influenced brain function. Whereas low-intensity exercise activated brain networks involved in cognition control and attention processing, high-intensity exercise activated networks involved in mood.

These findings support other data indicating that exercise benefits brain health and suggest that exercise may be a promising modality for use in improving cognitive function and in treating mood disorders.

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