Experts have long known that fitness is good for the brain. Now, a recent study establishes a link between different types of training and different improvements in memory.
It's no secret that regular exercise has many benefits. It protects against chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, and in some cases can improve mental health. But what effect does it have on specific functions, such as memory? Can a training schedule help you remember the scores of a football game, where you first went on a date with your partner, or where you left your keys?
All this is possible, according to the experts. Studies over the years have shown that a single workout can improve memory, and that regular exercise over years or decades not only improves memory, but also helps prevent future memory problems. A recent study by Dartmouth College examines how the intensity of exercise over a period of time can play an important role in strengthening different types of memory.
Intensity may be the key
"We know that exercise works, but we don't know what variables make exercise more effective," Marc Roig, a professor of physio and occupational therapy at Canada's McGill University who studies the effect of exercise on cognition, told De Morgen. "We believe intensity is one of those factors."
One of the biggest challenges in studying the link between regular exercise and memory is that the changes are difficult to measure. There are many other factors that influence memory, such as a sedentary profession or chronic sleep deprivation. In addition, there are different types of memory, which explains why a person can constantly lose their keys (poor spatial memory) but is good at remembering birth dates (strong semantic memory).
Activity trackers can provide a solution for this. In a recent paper published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, researchers were able to look at Fitbit data from 113 participants for a year, who also performed a series of memory tests, such as remembering details from a short story, spatial details, foreign language terms and lists of random words.
The advantage of this method is that a whole year's worth of information about the participants' activity patterns — how much exercise they got, how intensely they exercised, how often — was linked to their performance on memory tests.
Other studies have tracked activity patterns through self-reported data, which is often less reliable than tracker data, as people tend to underestimate how much time they spend sitting and misremember their overall activity level.
"You can get a much more nuanced picture of activity through tracker data," said Jeremy Manning, a professor at Dartmouth College and one of the study's authors. Manning and his colleagues found that active people generally had better memory than sedentary people, but also found that the types of tests on which they performed well varied depending on how intensely they exercised.
For example, participants who undertook light to moderate activities, such as regular walking, had a better 'episodic' memory. "Episodic memory is something like mental time travel," Manning told De Morgen, "Or the ability to remember details of everyday events, like meeting a friend in a coffee shop or looking forward to the school bus on your first day in kindergarten."
This is consistent with several previous studies that have shown that the more people are active, the better their episodic memory is on average.
Participants who regularly exercised more intensively were more likely to perform better on spatial memory tasks. Spatial memory is the ability to remember physical relationships between objects or locations in space, such as where you put your keys. Although more research needs to be done to really substantiate these connections, the researchers believe.
"The more we can connect everyday activity patterns with cognitive performance, the closer we get to thinking about lifestyle, like how active you are throughout the day and your sleep patterns," said Michelle Voss, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, who was not involved in the study.
Manning and his colleagues at Dartmouth College hope for a follow-up with controlled experiments to find out why certain exercises affect specific types of memory.
Maybe one day there will be a workout that specifically helps us remember where we put our keys.