Fitness and memory: Is running also a mental exercise?

Britney Jones
25 June 2014

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/mstay

Did you know? Aerobic exercise (cardio) refers to any exercise that increases the body’s need for oxygen. Examples include plyometrics, running, soccer, and swimming.Video games may be a fun way to pass the time. But if you don’t take any exercise breaks, you may not remember how to complete that level you spent hours on yesterday.

Exercise is important for a lot of reasons: preventing disease, improving mood, reducing stress, increasing energy, and promoting better sleep, just to name a few. Improving memory may soon be added to this list of benefits. A recent study out of Michigan State University has found a strong connection between aerobic fitness and long-term memory in young adults.

The study looked at 75 undergraduate students to see if their mental fitness was related to their physical fitness.

Did you know? Your brain needs oxygen to work, just like your muscles. In fact, your brain uses around 25% of the oxygen you breathe!To determine mental fitness, different memory systems, including long-term and working memory, were examined over three separate sessions. For example, to test long-term memory, participants learned related word pairs, like “toast and egg”. Then, at a second session, they were tested to see how many word pairs they remembered. To test working memory, participants were asked to keep verbal information in mind while performing math problems.

Physical fitness was measured by testing the amount of oxygen used up during a treadmill test, as well as by considering weight, body fat, age, and sex.

The results were clear: the fitter you are physically, the more information you can retain over time. This makes sense since exercise helps to increase the number of mitochondria in the cells, which makes the body more efficient at using oxygen to make energy.
Did you know? Mitochondria, which are often described as the “power plants” of the body, require oxygen to make energy. You can increase the number of mitochondria in your cells through aerobic exercise.The more oxygen available to the brain, the more effectively the brain can do its job (like remembering the killer combo in that video game).

Students with lower levels of physical fitness had a significantly harder time with long-term memory tasks. While Michigan State study didn’t find a relationship between physical fitness and working memory, other researchers have noted a connection.

Life has gotten a lot more sedentary in the last few decades. Advances in technology have made it easier to communicate with friends, play games, and do school work without even having to get out of bed. Unfortunately, this means most people get less exercise and staying fit requires more of a conscious effort.

Did you know? Long-term memory involves remembering anything that occurred more than 30 seconds ago.So the next time you have to choose between watching one more show on Netflix and getting up and getting active, remember to make the healthier choice. Your brain will thank you!

References

General information

Out of shape? Your memory may suffer (ScienceDaily/Michigan State University) Vitamins & oxygen to the brain (LIVESTRONG.COM/Larry Armstrong)

Scholarly publications

Erickson KI, et al. 2013. The brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val66Met polymorphism moderates an effect of physical activity on working memory performance. Science. 24:1770-1779. Pontifex PB, et al. 2014. Poorer aerobic fitness relates to reduced integrity of multiple memory systems. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience.

Britney Jones

Britney earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, majoring in biological sciences and minoring in psychology. She then went on to receive a Master’s degree in Biomedical Technology, where she developed a keen interest in health advocacy research. Britney spent two years as a member of the Clinical Research team at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. Currently, she is in her third year of medical school. 

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