I just read a really fascinating post on the New York Times’ Well blog. We’ve known for a long time that exercise has a whole host of good benefits, including benefits associated with memory. Two recent studies have delved even deeper into how this works.
How does exercise help memory?
In the blog post, New York Times journalist Gretchen Reynolds details the two new studies – one conducted on humans and the other conducted on rats.
In the human study, elderly women who already had some mild cognitive impairment were split into three groups. One group lifted weights, the second group engaged in moderate aerobic exercise, and the third group did yoga-like activities.
The participants were tested at the beginning and end of the 6-month exercise period and the results were striking. First, bear in mind that, in general, we would expect elderly people who are already experiencing mental decline to continue down that path over time. Indeed, after 6 months, the yoga group (our “control” group) showed a mild decline in several aspects of verbal memory.
The weight-training and aerobic groups, by contrast, actually improved their performance on several tests (remember, this was 6 months later!). In particular, these groups were not losing as much of their older memories and they even became faster at some spatial memory tests involving memorizing the location of three items. In other words, the women were both better at making new memories and better at remembering / retrieving old ones!
Another group of researchers conducted a similar study, only this time rats were getting some cardio in or lifting weights. (The rats ran on wheels for the cardio exercise and, get this, for the weight lifting, the researchers tied little weights to the rats tails and had them climb tiny ladders!)