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Memory Lapses? Young Brains Need a Fitness Plan Too

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young brains need fitness plan to prevent memory lapses too Lev Dolgachov/PhotoSpin

Forgot where you put the car keys? Can’t remember what you ate for lunch? Try taking a brisk walk.

A new study adds to a growing consensus that getting too little aerobic exercise negatively affects a person’s long-term memory — that’s anything remembered more than about 30 seconds ago.

The new study, published online in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, is among the first to investigate the memory level in young, healthy adults.

The findings speak to the increasingly sedentary lifestyles found in the United States and other Western cultures, said Kimberly Fenn, study co-author and Michigan State University assistant professor of psychology.

Researchers tested 75 college students during a two-day period and found that those who were less fit had a harder time retaining information.

“The findings show that lower-fit individuals lose more memory across time,” said Fenn.

“A surprising number of the college students in the study were significantly out of shape and did much worse at retaining information than those who were extremely fit.”

Converging evidence across human and animal studies suggests that high-level cognitive systems, such as memory, may be sensitive to levels of aerobic fitness and physical activity, according to the study.

Previous research on fitness and memory has focused largely on children, whose brains are still developing, and the elderly, whose memories are in decline. In each case, the poorer the aerobic fitness level, the lower the memory performance.

A six-month Canadian study looking at women with early memory problems found that aerobic activity increased the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory. The women in this study were between 70 and 80 years old, living independently at home and at risk of dementia.

The hippocampus shrinks as part of normal aging. Previous research found this shrinkage speeds up as we grow older, foreshadowing memory problems and dementias like Alzheimer's disease.

But as luck would have it, the hippocampus is a part of the brain where new cells are born and continue to grow throughout life when moderate regular aerobic fitness exercise is incorporated into a person’s lifestyle.

Art Kramer, a neuroscientist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led the study published in 2011, that found aerobic exercise not only staves off a shrinking hippocampus, it helps it grow.

A 2012 Michigan State University study, led by Matthew Pontifex, an assistant professor of kinesiology, found early evidence suggesting that a few minutes of aerobic exercise can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder perform better academically.

Even those small amounts of activity could ultimately prove to be an effective non-pharmaceutical treatment of ADHD.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and water sports junkie who lives in San Diego with her husband and two beach loving dogs. In addition to writing for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in publications internationally.


Poorer aerobic fitness relates to reduced integrity of multiple memory systems. M.B. Pontifex, A.C. Parks, P.C. O’Neil, A.R. Egner, J.T. Warning, K. A. Pfeifer, K. M. Fenn. Cong Affect behave Neurosci. Published online 4 Mar 2014. DOI 10.3758/s13415-014-0265-z
Abstract at:

Out of Shape. Your memory may suffer. Michigan State University. 2 May 2014.

L. F. ten Brinke, N. Bolandzadeh, L. S. Nagamatsu, C. L. Hsu, J. C. Davis, K. Miran-Khan, T. Liu-Ambrose. Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2014; DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-093184 http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2014/03/04/bjsports-2013-093184.abstract

Aerobic Exercise May Improve Memory in Seniors. Michelle Trudeau. NPR. 21 Feb. 2011

Reviewed May 13, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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