Better Brain Recipe: Exercise Plus Memory Training

Researchers may have discovered a way to help you remember where you left your keys. According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, physical activity paired with cognitive training may boost memory, even in young high-functioning adults. For the study, reported on by the New York Times, researchers selected 95 healthy, young, non-exercising college students. These participants underwent blood tests, as well as aerobic fitness and memory tests, before being divided into three groups: the first group began a six-week exercise program consisting of 20 minutes of intense interval training on stationary bicycles three times a week; the second group began the same exercise program plus 20 minutes of computerized memory training before and after the cycling sessions; and the third (control) group did no exercise or cognitive training. At the end of the study, the blood, fitness, and memory tests were repeated. The results of these tests showed:

  • The exercise only and the exercise plus memory training groups improved their performance on a high-interference memory test, but the control group did not. High-interference memory helps us to distinguish a specific item from similar items; for example, it can help you recognize your car even when it is parked next to another of the same make and model.
  • Participants in the exercising groups who experienced greater improvements in fitness (high responders) also had greater increases in blood levels of two neurotrophic factors—proteins that support the growth, function, and survival of brain cells.
  • Among high responders to exercise, the combined training program led to greater high-interference memory performance gains compared with exercise alone, suggesting cognitive and physical training may have synergistic effects.

This preliminary research shows that combined physical and cognitive training may improve memory function in healthy adults over a relatively short period of time. However, questions remain: Are the effects lasting? How does long-term training impact cognitive function? Does physical exercise, combined with mental exercise, help people with dementia or other forms of memory loss? More research may provide answers. But for now, the takeaway is that both physical and mental exercise are key to keeping your brain healthy. And, as for keeping track of your keys, hanging a hook by the front door might help.

Source: Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

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