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Cardiovascular Exercise Improves Memory

Researchers have consistently focused on the role that cardiovascular exercise has in preventing coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, some cancers and other chronic diseases. Other studies have examined whether cardiovascular exercise reduces stress, depression and anxiety.

In 2013, researchers explored how cardiovascular exercise triggers neurobiological mechanisms that influence memory processing.

Research divides memory into two familiar categories: short-term and long-term. Short-term memory, also called working memory, retains information over brief periods from a few seconds to 1-2 minutes. Examples of short-term memory tasks include memorizing a series of random digit numbers or recalling a list of words presented orally.

In contrast, long-term memory research explores memories retained more than 2 minutes after an information stimulus. For instance, long-term memory tasks include identifying photographs of faces presented 30 minutes earlier or recalling details of a short story 30 minutes after it has been read.

Scientists further categorize long-term memory as either declarative or non-declarative. Declarative memories consciously recall facts and events that we experience, including such things as news events occurring around the world. Non-declarative memory retains previous experiences that help us perform a task without our conscious awareness; for example, riding a bike or tying a shoelace.

Researchers typically use brisk walking, cycling or running in studies on cardiovascular exercise and memory. The acute effects of cardiovascular exercise on short-term memory involve the use of submaximal to maximal bouts of exercise.  The data indicated that acute bouts of cardiovascular exercise improve visuospatial short-term memory more than verbal-audio (i.e., listening) short-term memory. Visuospatial memory includes visual perception of spatial relationships among objects, such as interpreting directions on a map.

The research suggests that walking is the most effective acute cardiovascular exercise for improving short-term memory. In addition, the effects of acute cardiovascular exercise on short-term memory are better when the exercise bout lasts less than 20 minutes and is performed at a low intensity.

The short-term memory of young adults (aged 18-24) tends to see the most improvements from acute cardiovascular exercise. Acute cardiovascular exercise improves short-term memory by priming the molecular processes involved in the encoding and consolidation of newly acquired information.

Long-term cardiovascular exercise has different effects. This type of exercise improves verbal-audio, short-term memory (e.g., listening, engaging in group discussions). Combining walking, running and cycling maximizes the effect of long-term cardiovascular exercise on short-term memory. Long-term cardiovascular exercise involving medium duration and light to moderate intensity shows the greatest effect on short-term memory. Once again, young adults showed the greatest gains in short-term memory.

Long-term cardiovascular exercise initially appears to provide only negligible improvements in any long-term memory. Long-term cardiovascular exercise may delay some age-related memory impairments.

A study was done with particular interest in whether exercise affected deterioration of the hippocampus in the brain. Deterioration of the hippocampus in the brain leads to memory loss in late life.

The study showed that progressively increasing duration and intensity of cardiovascular exercise increased hippocampal volume 2% over the course of the year. Researchers proposed that the increase in hippocampus size translates to an improvement in memory function and theoretically helps to reduce the risk of cognitive impairment. Research also indicated study subjects with at least an average fitness level have the best long-term memory gains from regular cardiovascular exercise.

Short-term memory and long-term memory are distinct and yet complementary. Acute cardiovascular exercise appears to facilitate a person’s short-term perception of spatial-relationship tasks.

Long-term cardiovascular exercise appears to improve short-term memory and prevent deterioration of the hippocampus. Thus, sustained long-term cardiovascular exercise may delay the memory loss often observed later in life.

Resource: IDEA Fitness Journal

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