A new study has added evidence to the fact that exercise may improve memory and other cognitive skills. The study results published in, Health Psychology, show that middle aged adults who did two-hour sessions of cycling or stretching in a week had improved memory and thinking skill within six months.
“A combination of the two may provide even better results," says researcher Kirsten Hotting, PhD, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He adds that combining the different forms of exercise may increase the beneficial effects.
Under normal conditions, the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory, shrinks during adulthood. Some of the earlier studies have shown that this part of the brain showed growth almost a year after the adults started exercising. The growth of this region was associated with an improvement of memory. In the present study, 68 men and women between the ages of 40-years-old and 56-years-old were assigned to stretching and cycling. About 18 non-active people were included in the study as a control group.
All the participants got a heart fitness test done before the start of the study. Exercise started with a warm up session, followed by stretching and strengthening of major muscles of the body. The exercise session ended with relaxation exercises. Those who chose cycling as the exercise did the same at their target heart rate as determined by the test. The memory and thinking skills of the participants were tested before and after the study.
Cycling group showed an improvement of 15% in the heart fitness rate while there were no noticeable changes in the fitness levels of the stretching and inactive group. Both the cycling and stretching groups showed an improvement in the memory test when compared to the inactive group and the increase in the scores of the memory test was linked to the increase in the fitness levels. In recognition tests, the cycling group performed better than the other two groups. In a test of attention, stretching group was found to score more than the cycling group. There were no significant differences in the performance of any other thinking skills between the two groups.
Hotting feels that the improvement of memory is very important, especially for day-to-day activities. “The recognition test indicates that the person is able to remember some of the learned items for more than a few minutes," says Hotting. This is relevant, as we need to remember many things in our everyday lives.
Scott Small, MD, the Herbert Irving professor of neurology at Columbia University, remarks that the study results are similar to the results of earlier studies. Many earlier studies had also linked increase in fitness with an improvement in memory. Small had reported earlier that when inactive people become active, it increases the blood flow to the brain.