Memory benefits of exercise.

A growing body of research suggests that regular participation in long-term exercise is associated with enhanced cognitive function. However, less is known about the beneficial effects of acute exercise on semantic memory. Semantic memory is a type of long-term memory involving the capacity to recall words, concepts, or numbers, which is essential for the use and understanding of language. If we lose semantic memory, we struggle with knowledge of everyday objects and have trouble communicating, as typically seen with the advent of Alzheimer’s disease. So, it’s noteworthy that a study which investigated brain activation during a semantic memory task after a single session of exercise in healthy older adults produced some extraordinary results. Indeed, just one session of exercise increased activation in the brain circuits associated with memory — including the hippocampus — which shrinks with age and is the brain region attacked first in Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous research suggested regular exercise can increase the volume of the hippocampus, but this study provides new information that acute exercise can impact this important part of the brain.

The research team measured the brain activity of healthy participants aged 55-85 who were asked to perform a memory task involving identifying names, famous and non-famous. Remembering famous names activates a neural network related to semantic memory, which is known to deteriorate over time with memory loss. The test took place 30 minutes after a session of moderately intense exercise (70% of max effort) on an exercise bike and then on a separate day after a period of rest. Brain activation while correctly remembering names was significantly greater in four brain cortical regions after exercise compared to after rest.

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