Exercise Boosts Brain Power

Everyone knows that exercise – pretty much any kind – is good for the body. And, most people agree that it is good for the soul and improves overall well-being. But, what does exercise do for the brain? A recent study shows that just one 20 minute session of exercise can improve memory.

Many studies have evaluated the effects of aerobic exercise on mental health, cognition, and memory, and virtually all have shown improvements in each of these parameters after long-term exercise programs. Most of the studies have been conducted in elderly people or people with cognitive impairment and the results have provided support for integrated exercise and wellness programs in the treatment of dementia and cognitive decline. Few studies have evaluated short-term or strength training exercise regimens. Until now, at least.

A team of psychology and physiology researchers recently reported that a single short session of resistance training improved long-term memory in young, healthy adults. The study included 46 participants who were asked to view pictures before completing a round of leg extensions; the participants were asked to remember the pictures two days later.

The active group (the one that completed the leg extensions with maximal personal effort) remembered more of the photos than the passive group (the one that just sat on the exercise equipment and allowed the researchers and the machine move their legs). Within the active group, participants with greater physiological responses to exercise, which were measured by heart rate and blood pressure during the exercise session, had the best accuracy in remembering the pictures. Together, these results indicate that episodic memory – long-term memory for previous events – improved after exercise.

The participants also provided saliva samples and the results of testing indicated that the active group had higher levels of alpha amylase, a marker of norepinephrine levels in the brain. Norepinephrine, which is released in response to physical and psychological stressors, has been linked to better memory in rodent and human studies.

This norepinephrine release after learning something new (the period of consolidation) improves the ability to remember what was learned. In real-world scenarios, norepinephrine released in response to stress helps retain the memory of the emotional or challenging event.

The authors of the current study concluded that other simple strength training activities, such as traditional weight-lifting, push-ups, sit-ups, knee bends, or squats, would likely have the same effects on memory. And, people would not need to dedicate large amounts of time to exercising to realize some gains.

More studies are needed to confirm exactly what types of exercise offer the most benefit for specific cognitive domains, but exercise may be, in fact, a natural and practical therapeutic intervention, not just to treat people with existing cognitive decline, but to boost brain power and prevent decline in healthy people.

Looks like brains and brawn really can go together.


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Image via Crystal Eye Studio / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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