It’s no secret that regular exercise has many benefits. They protect against the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease and, in some cases, can improve Mental Health.
But what effect do they have on specific functions, such as memory? Can an exercise program help you remember last night’s game scores, where did you go on your first date with your girlfriend (or boyfriend) or where did you leave off your keys ?
It’s possible. Studies over the years have suggested that a single workout can improve memory and that regular practice over years or decades not only improves memory but also helps fortify against future problems.
Now, a recent study from Dartmouth College (USA) focuses on how exercise intensity, over a period of time, can play an important role in improving different types of memory.
“We know exercise works, but we don’t know what exercise variables make it most effective,” said Marc Roig, a professor of physical and occupational therapy at McGill University who studies the effect of exercise on cognition and did not participate in the study. “We think intensity is one of those factors.”
Exercise intensity appears to affect memory
One of the main challenges in studying the link between regular exercise and memory is that the changes are difficult to measure. This is complicated by the fact that many other factors affect memory, such as sedentary work or chronic sleep deprivation.
Also, there are different types of memory, which explains why a person can constantly lose their keys (poor spatial memory) but have a gift for remembering dates of birth (strong semantic memory).
Activity tracker watches can offer a solution to these problems. In a recent article published in the journal Nature Scientific reportsthe researchers were able to analyze one year’s data from the Fitbit trackers of 113 people, who also performed a series of memory tests, such as remembering story details, spatial details, foreign language terms and random word lists.
The advantage of this method is that it linked an entire year of information from participants’ activity patterns – how much exercise they did, how much, how often – to their performance on memory tests. .
Other studies have tracked activity patterns through self-reported data, which is often less reliable than tracking data because people tend to underestimate the amount of time they spend standing still and remember in ways incorrect of their total activity levels.
“You can get a much more detailed picture with activity tracking data,” said Jeremy Manning, a professor at Dartmouth College and one of the study’s authors.
Manning and his colleagues found that active people had better overall memory than sedentary people, but they also found that the types of tests they passed varied depending on the intensity of their exercise.
For example, participants who engaged in light to moderate activities, such as regular walks, had better “episodic” memory. Think of episodic memory as “mental time travel,” Manning said, or the ability to remember details of everyday events, like meeting a friend at a coffee shop or waiting for the school bus on the first day of school.
This ties in with several previous studies that have shown that the more active people are, the better, on average, their episodic memory is.
Participants who regularly exercised with higher intensity – such as running or training HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)– were more likely to perform better on spatial memory tasks.
Spatial memory is the ability to remember physical relationships between objects or locations in space, such as where you placed your keys. This mirrors several other studies that show high-intensity exercise improves memory, but goes further, suggesting it may be more helpful for this type of memory than another.
Further studies are needed to solidify these associations and determine what causes them, the researchers said.
“The more we can relate daily activity patterns to cognitive performance, the closer we get to lifestyle thinking,” which includes your activity level throughout the day and sleep patterns, said Michelle Voss, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, who was not involved in the study.
According to Phillip Tomporowski, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia, who was also not involved in the study, this work is a “really good first guess” on how certain exercise patterns affect certain types of memory.
Manning and his colleagues hope to continue with controlled experiments to identify why certain exercises may affect specific types of memory.
Maybe one day there will be a practice session to finally help you remember where you put your keys.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves