The Regional Approach to Brain Health & Exercise
While there are both general and specific effects on the brain that exercise and physical activity interventions can elicit, it is potentially helpful to understand how different forms of exercise may impact certain regions of the brain more than others. This approach opens the door to more precision medicine-oriented approaches, especially when using forms of neuroimaging (such as volumetric MRIs), cognitive testing that may infer brain function from certain brain regions, or questionnaires that may be helpful for inferring subjective behavior and cognition.
There are inherent weaknesses in taking this approach, some of which may invalidate aspects of it altogether, although more research is needed. These weaknesses include a sense of “exclusivity”, leading to assumptions such as “this form of exercise affects this brain region, but not any other regions.” In addition, considering that both the nervous systems and human movement are incredibly dynamic and complex, it is difficult to isolate regions or functions of the brain via the targeted effects of exercise and physical activity interventions.
A more realistic approach may be to ask whether a specific exercise or physical activity intervention emphasizes functional and/or structural improvements in various brain regions, understanding the much of the brain is involved in most physical activities. This approach does not consider a “light switch” approach, in which brain regions are “turned on or off”, but rather a “volume knob” approach, by which brain regions or networks are emphasized.
In addition, more research is needed to explore the incredibly high amount of variables when combining the acute variables within exercise interventions (considering the FIIT principle), different modalities of exercise and their combinations, the age and demographics of various populations, and the multitude of functional and structural adaptations within the brain at its various levels. For existing research in humans, studies need replication and larger sample sizes, and animal studies begin to be conducted in humans where applicable.