Updated: Nov 18, 2019
Training your memory is obviously a mental exercise, right? Hit the study, head down.
In fact, that’s not the whole story.
The learning and memory benefits of exercise have been well documented in numerous medical studies. It is a fact that regular aerobic exercise changes the brain and improves memory, thinking skills and overall brain health. There is a positive effect on memory function, cognitive ability, attention, processing speed and executive function skills. Studies also point to exercise helping to reduce neuron degeneration and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Exercise helps memory and mental health indirectly as well, as it improves mood and sleep, while reducing stress and anxiety. And not forgetting ... you get fit!
Aerobic exercise appears to be key
The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is critical for our memory, as it is involved in verbal memory and learning. It is widely accepted that exercise enhances the production of neurons in the hippocampus. A University of British Columbia study concluded that the volume of the hippocampus region was increased after six months of regular aerobic exercise, where the subject had a raised pulse and was sweating. The same study found that resistance training and muscle toning exercises did not have the same effect on the brain, so you need to be puffing.
Aerobic exercise over at least several months has shown to increase brain volume in not only the hippocampus but also the prefrontal and temporal cortex. On top of this, athletes have been shown to have more concentrations of gray and white matter clusters in their brain (which is a good thing) than those with a sedentary lifestyle. So your brain not only gets bigger, but also better. What’s not to like?
But a further study confirmed you need to achieve the right exercise level – not too little or too much. This study was on rodents, but hey, we are all in the rat race together. It suggests that moderate exercise intensity improves cognitive performance, but high intensity exercise becomes less effective, likely because it creates higher levels of stress responses.
How does it work?
Exercise helps memory and cognitive processes in several ways. These include reducing insulin resistance and inflammation and also stimulating the release of growth factor chemicals in the brain. These chemicals help to grow new blood vessels and improve the survival of new brain cells. Aerobic exercise enhances neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to change) and also lowers the amounts of toxic proteins in the brain. This is a great outcome, because these toxic proteins are an important factor in the development of Alzheimer's disease, one of the most common causes of adult dementia.
Exercise benefits the mind further than just your memory
Exercise also helps with anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A large body of studies support the idea that exercise can prevent or delay the arrival of these mental disorders. And the effect it has depends on how much exercise you do. Again, moderate aerobic exercise in adults is better than low or high intensity exercise.
Exercise helps with motor skills, too.
Even one exercise session significantly improves motor skills performance in a test, and helps remember that skill for longer.
Dance and your brain
I encourage people of all ages to start learning dance - it’s great for both your body and mind.
As a dancer I know first-hand the improvement I feel in my memory after a dance class. And studies back me up on this. Dance shows the same brain benefits as aerobic exercise, but with additional effects. There is a strong body of observational research that shows dance also alleviates the symptoms of dementia, including Parkinson’s disease. Moving while concentrating on learning coordinated movement seems to be the key, and music has a further effect. Dance has shown such strong benefit for brain health that it is now being used to treat people with Parkinson's.
And regardless of the benefits to your brain, dance just makes you feel so good.
Physical activity and aging - first the bad news
Aging is inescapable and is linked to decreased cognitive function and increased risk of brain diseases including dementia and Alzheimer’s. The hippocampus loses neurons and size as we age and this is associated with aging-related reductions in neuroplasticity and memory functions.
And now the good news
Physical exercise is known to reduce and delay age-related cognitive decline. Exercise (especially dance :) can alleviate aging related structural and functional changes in the brain, reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disease. As mentioned above, exercise enhances the adult hippocampus neuron production that is critical for memory functions.
Put it to the test yourself
So what should you do? Regardless of age, if you haven’t already done so start an aerobic exercise habit and enjoy improved physical and mental health. Hit the gym, go for a run, or take up dance!
And leave the study alone for an hour or so.