Intense physical exercise may improve memory, study suggests

In the past, research has demonstrated that regular exercise carries significant benefits, like combating depression. However, a new study, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, shows that intense sessions of physical exercise may also help boost memory and thinking.

The study, led by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, examined 95 participants — all healthy young adults in college — over a span of six weeks of either exercise training, a combination of exercise and cognitive training or no training.

The participants were split into the following three groups. The first was a control group asked to continue with their traditional daily routines. The second initiated exercise routines on a stationary bicycle that were observed three times a week for 20 minutes each. The third had a similar routine as the second group, except they received an additional 20 minutes of brain training before and after each session.

Before and after the study, researchers also collected blood samples and analyzed changes in aerobic fitness, cognition, and neurotrophic factor, according to the findings.

“The results reveal a potential mechanism for how exercise and cognitive training may be changing the brain to support cognition, suggesting that the two work together through complementary pathways of the brain to improve high-interference memory.”

Researchers found that those who exercised regularly reported improved cognitive, specifically in memory such as quickly differentiating between similar images of objects.

Moreover, the participants who took brain tests before and after each session of exercise saw the most improvement in cognition. They also experienced a significant increase in the protein brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), the study found.

“Improvements in this type of memory from exercise might help to explain the previously established link between aerobic exercise and better academic performance,” said Jennifer Heisz, the lead researcher.

“At the other end of our lifespan, as we reach our senior years, we might expect to see even greater benefits in individuals with memory impairment brought on by conditions such as dementia. One hypothesis is that we will see greater benefits for older adults given that this type of memory declines with age.”

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