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Exercise boosts memory, and timing matters

Posted April 12th, 2017

For those of you who exercise regularly, you will know that exercise does great things to your mind and body. For me personally, I have to admit that I am going for the runner’s high. The collateral benefits are extra bonus, of course. A study published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology just gave us one more reason to hit the gym.

The researchers from the Donders Institute at the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands reported that physical exercise after learning improves memory and memory traces. However, the caveat is that the memory boosting effect only presents when the exercise is done in a specific time window, i.e., four hours after the learning, but not immediately after learning.

In the study, the researchers tested the effects of a single session of physical exercise after learning on memory consolidation and long-term memory. Seventy-two study participants learned 90 picture-location associations over a period of approximately 40 minutes before being randomly assigned to one of three groups: one group performed exercise immediately, the second performed exercise four hours later, and the third did not perform any exercise. The exercise consisted of 35 minutes of interval training on an exercise bike at an intensity of up to 80 percent of participants’ maximum heart rates. Forty-eight hours later, participants returned for a test to show how much they remembered while their brains were imaged via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The researchers found that those who exercised four hours after their learning session retained the information better two days later than those who exercised either immediately or not at all. The brain images also showed that exercise after a time delay was associated with more precise representations in the hippocampus, an area important to learning and memory, when an individual answered a question correctly.

The results of the study suggest that appropriately timed physical exercise can improve long-term memory and highlight the potential of exercise as an intervention in educational and clinical settings.   However, it is not yet clear exactly how or why delayed exercise has this effect on memory. Some earlier studies of laboratory animals suggest that naturally occurring chemical compounds in the body known as catecholamines, including dopamine and norepinephrine, can improve memory consolidation. One way to boost catecholamines is through physical exercise, which could be accounted for the observed memory boosting effects in this study.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Connie Wan

Journal Reference

van Dongen et al. Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval. Current Biology, 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.071