I joined a gym because I code at a desk all day, and I want to keep my body active as I get older. I also read that physical activity can help preserve brain function and IQ : https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110

I go to the gym three times per week and after 15 minutes of cardio warm up (2 miles on a bike, elliptical, etc.), I use three or four machines for different muscle groups (three sets of ten reps for each machine). So one day I may do triceps, calves, lower back. Then the next time, biceps, chest, quads, etc...

I don't break a sweat when working out, but I feel pretty good since joining the gym. Should I be sweating and feeling exhausted? I just want the general benefits of exercising since I have no strength or weight loss goals.

  • 1
    I don't know the answer to your question, but why don't you just increase the weights until it gets exhausting? You're spending the time anyway, so you might as well enjoy the strength benefits
    – Christian
    Mar 8, 2019 at 8:14

2 Answers 2


I'm a layman and further I think this is still fairly new research, but it's my understanding that it is aerobic, not anaerobic, exercise that provides the cognitive benefits you're after.

Aerobic exercise uses oxygen to convert glucose into energy, but when the body consumes more energy than can be produced this way (you can only breathe so hard) it resorts to a different process which does not have the same oxygen demands but also produces lactic acid and causes your muscles to burn and become stiff (though I think there is still some theory competition around the exact role/s lactic acid has).

I'm not certain whether the mechanism of action is understood, but I think it's perhaps possible that the neurogenesis (the forming of new neurons) observed in people that regularly engage in aerobic exercise is due to improved blood flow into the narrowest blood vessels in the brain due to the temporary increase in blood pressure. Medication intended to reduce blood pressure is apparently a potential cause or exacerbator of dementia in some people because there simply isn't enough pressure to continue forcing blood into these blood vessels as one ages.

Research has been done comparing cognitive activity to 15 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 times per week with both being excellent, cardio being a statistically significant improvement over cognitive activity, and only a tiny potential further improvement when the two are combined.

I'm still planning on keeping both in my schedule, though.

Morale of the story? If you're feeling a burn in your muscles instead of your lungs you're probably not going to get the results you're looking for, but clearly you can do both aerobic and anaerobic exercise if you're so inclined.

Edit: Here's an article that explains there's more to it than I covered in my answer.


And here's a research paper comparing high intensity interval training (HIIT) and resistance training to aerobic exercise.


Happy reading!

  • Nice answer, any sources you can cite?
    – Dark Hippo
    Mar 9, 2019 at 8:17
  • Good idea. I added an article and a research paper.
    – Ajacmac
    Mar 9, 2019 at 16:12

Research has shown that strength training has cognitive benefits. I believe the mechanism underlying this has not been established. I guess that it is hormonal and/or the act of getting muscle fibers firing: central nervous system stress.

I therefore think the more weight (intensity) the better.

It is well known that the deadlift, which usually is the exercise in which one can lift the most weight, causes central nervous system fatigue and one can therefore only do little volume of this exercise.

The squat is also a psychological taxing exercise.

Both the squat and the deadlift has been shown to have large hormonal responses. In particular the squat can also be done in volume and is used in strength training programs to trigger this response. That is probably why it is the main lift in Starting Strength. "The squat drives up everything."

Therefore I think you should deadlift and squat. To make the program well rounded you add in overhead press, bench press and chin-ups and voila you have the Starting Strength/Stronglifts program.

Finally I think walking preferably every day and for at least 30 minutes preferably 1 hour is the best thing you can do for your brain since the increased blood flow helps repair the brain. I got this from a book on brain health: "The brain always wins". In this case volume is key and not intensity, but I believe this is another mechanism than for strength training.


Resistance Training Boosts Memory

Best Type of Exercise to Prevent Memory Loss and Mild Cognitive Impairment?

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