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Long-term exercise preserves memory function
Scientists studied people who had exercised consistently for a long-term and found they had better memory function than those who did not exercise. Starting to exercise at any time of your life is good - it's never too late - but starting earlier can bring benefits.
This finding is important to know because the research found that just being an active participant in a sport for a long period had this beneficial effect. You don't need to become a gym nerd.
Exercise enhances memory performance
I reluctantly started going to the gym over 20 years ago, in response to being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a nasty disease that you want to avoid getting at all costs. But it turned out - looking at the bright side - that for me it was a blessing in disguise. The benefits of regular exercise have paid off for me many times over.
Here's what research found:
Participating in some form of regular physical exercise brings with it an improvement to the quality of memory later on in life... Physical exercise is closely related to the cognitive function through a cascade of cellular and molecular processes that promote angiogenesis, neurogenesis and synaptogenesis, thus enhancing learning, memory, and brain plasticity.
Meaning: exercise promotes the growth of new brain structures crucial to maintaining good memory as you get older.
Scientists from Spain showed that long-term exercise promotes the preservation of memory function, specifically concerning the type of memory recall which falters as Alzheimer's disease develops.
Moreover, the number of weekly hours of exercise also showed a positive correlation with test performance. In short, a habit of regular, consistent exercise goes a long way when it comes to memory.
It's known that exercise releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates our production of new brain cells and strengthens existing ones.
However, the relationship between BDNF and memory is not clear. For example, this study found no significant associations between BDNF and memory. The study also found that while BDNF concentration showed a significant increase in response to all acute exercise that there were no differences relative to exercise intensity.
Other studies have shown the beneficial effect of exercise on people's memory, provided they are already suffering from certain conditions, such as Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairment.
What was not known was the effect of very long-term exercise on our brain. Thus, this study is the first of its kind – exploring the connection between long-term exercise (not sharp bursts of activity) and memory performance. (The study results are only relevant for men (until proven otherwise) as there were no women participants.)
Comparing under 25 and over 50 age groups
The length of time the study participants had been exercising was between 20 and 50 years. Two groups participated in the study - a younger group aged 17-25 and an older group aged 48 to 68 years old. Within each of those groups, there were those classified as sedentary and those who actively exercised.
Here's what the research found:
In conclusion, regular exercise appears to improve our memory recall performance at all stages of life.
Most importantly, exercise improves general our cognitive processes and memory, has analgesic and antidepressant effects, and even induces a sense of wellbeing. All things that money cannot buy!
So, how long and how hard should you exercise?
All of the older individuals in this study were amateur rugby players, a team sport. I played rugby at university — 5th grade. We were the “gentlemen’s” grade simply meaning that we didn’t train, we just played the competition games on the weekends.
Perhaps surprisingly, the study does not refer to the level of exercise intensity of the long-term participants, but only to the "number of weekly hours of exercise" - 5 hours a week for the older group.
The study only reports on "dose size" - the hours of exercise per week, and reports that more is better in relation to memory recall performance. How does this translate into a practical outcome which we can implement ourselves?
Here's my answer. The equivalent to 5 hours of rugby exercise, including the game (80 minutes), is 5 hours of exercise at 6 METS of intensity (moderate to vigorous).
This equivalent could be brisk walking, jogging, playing tennis, cycling, spinning, etc. Aim for a heart rate 50-70% of your maximum heart rate, and hard enough that you can only just maintain a conversation.
I recommend that you aim for 7 hours of such exercise each week and not five. You'll find this very beneficial and as the study showed, more hours translates into better memory performance.
The relationship between exercise, BDNF and our cognitive functions is not fully understood. If you are interested in what is known, read on.
Exercise, BDNF and Cognitive Health
When we exercise, we release BDNF, which stimulates the growth of brand new brain cells and pathways. This growth is the "angiogenesis, neurogenesis and synaptogenesis" referred to above, which helps us learn faster, remember better, age slower, and rapidly rewire our brain.
BDNF also increases our brain's plasticity - the ability of the brain to rewire itself when cells and pathways get damaged or get locked into a particular reactive pattern. Improved plasticity is significant because it explains how exercise (generating higher levels of BDNF) can contribute to warding off depression. It is known that people who suffer from depression have reduced levels of BDNF.
Improved brain plasticity helps us think about things in new ways and to detune our old reactive ruts that have formed in our brain.
Endurance exercise increases BDNF, and the increase is long-lived - men who cycled for 3 months nearly quadrupled their resting BDNF. Other studies explored the effect of short-term, aerobic exercises, mostly targeting attention, decision-making and speed processing.
BDNF levels are also increased two to three-times after acute exercise when compared to resting conditions, with beneficial cognitive benefits, although these are have been found to be short-lived.
An increase in BDNF concentrations is also known to be associated with an increase in hippocampal size and improvement in the performance of spatial memory and learning. That said, the study reported on in this post did not find an association between memory recall performance and BDNF levels.
BDNF is also released in response to by other activities, such as sleep, and foods, for example foods containing polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidants which stimulate BDNF and protect our brain from stress. Coffee, green tea, dark chocolate, blueberries, and colourful vegetables are all excellent polyphenol sources, as is eating the whole orange.
You can reverse the aging effects of being inactive
There is much more to be understood. But we do know that exercise can reverse at least some of the unwanted effects of a sedentary lifestyle, and also contribute to delaying brain aging and degenerative pathologies such as Alzheimer's Disease, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter