Whether it’s playing basketball, lifting weights or taking a brisk walk, a good workout can leave you feeling energized and confident. It’s well known that frequent bouts of exercise make you stronger and improve your cardiovascular health, but a new study is adding another, unexpected benefit to the mix.
Research presented at the annual Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting on March 24 shows that habitual exercise can improve memory and brain function over time. It’s long been known that fitness affects the brain, and that memory is ramped up after a workout. But now, this short-term benefit has been shown to persist in those who follow long-term exercise programs. Participants in a study retained their improved memories long after a workout was over, suggesting that the cognitive benefits of exercise can be sustained over time.
Memories Run Rampant
Research shows that physical activity temporarily increases the size of the hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s connected to memory and learning. So if you learn new information after a workout, you have a better chance of recalling it later on. But until recently researchers didn’t know if consistent workouts would result in long-term improvements in memory and brain function.
To find out if memory gains held up over time, a team of researchers at the University of Iowa had participants complete either a low or moderate intensity workout. Both before and after the workout, they were subject to MRI scans to study their hippocampus and were given a series of exams to test their memories. After the initial evaluations, they were put on a 12-week workout program and given the same tests after it was complete.
They found that after both their single bout of exercise and after their 12-week workout regimen, where the tests weren’t taken after a workout, their hippocampus showed similar improvements in memory function. This suggests that people who exercise regularly can hold on to their heightened ability to remember information long after their workout is complete.
The discovery not only helps scientists draw neurological links between memory and physical activity, but could also be used to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Plus, the researchers are planning an extended study to see how memory improves after six months of regular exercise, which could yield even more promising results. With improved memory being added to the long list of exercise benefits, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify the nightly Netflix binge on the couch.