Exercise improves health in so many ways that it could be considered the most effective “drug” on the planet. Regular physical activity helps to reduce our risk of many health problems, from cancers to diabetes to depression. New research is showing that even short-term memory can be significantly, and immediately, benefited by exercise.
This new research out of the University of California — Irvine and published in proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has examined the effects of short periods of light exercise on brain function. The researchers instructed 36 healthy young adults to do a single 10-minute session of exercise with mild exertion. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the researchers observed that after 10 minutes of light exertion, the participants had a significant increase in brain activity between the hippocampal dentate gyrus and cortical areas linked to detailed memory processing.
The researchers also noticed that this increase in memory-associated brain activity correlated with improved recall when the participants were given a memory test. The participants with the most increased brain activity on the fMRI scan also showed the best improvement in their recall when given a memory test.
“The hippocampus is critical for the creation of new memories; it’s one of the first regions of the brain to deteriorate as we get older — and much more severely in Alzheimer’s disease,” said project co-leader Michael Yassa and a professor at the University of California — Irvine. “Improving the function of the hippocampus holds much promise for improving memory in everyday settings.”
While in the past, exercise has shown long-term benefits on many areas of mental health, this research is unique in that it showed an immediate improvement in memory function after a bout of light physical activity. The researchers suggested that even walking for a short period of time could be enough for a memory boost.
“It’s encouraging to see more people keeping track of their exercise habits — by monitoring the number of steps they’re taking, for example,” said Yassa. “Even short walking breaks throughout the day may have considerable effects on improving memory and cognition.”
While exercise is the best “one size fits all” medicine, most Canadians don’t get enough of it. When in doubt, following the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, and two bouts of weight-bearing exercise per week, is a safe bet. It might just help you to remember where you left your keys.
Do you have questions about the effects of exercise on mood, memory or mental health in general? Ask your naturopathic doctor.