Most people know that exercise is good for their physical health, but not everyone knows that it also has beneficial effects for cognitive functions and mental health. Cognitive performance decreases with old age, and a growing elderly population increases the amount of people that will get diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. In addition, mood related disorders are a major worldwide problem. Exercise can improve the lives of people who are at the risk of developing these brain-associated disorders.
Exercise can increase your memory
A study performed on elderly people showed that increased physical activity resulted in an enhanced memory performance. It did not matter if the increased activity came from organized training sessions or from routines embedded into the daily life such as walking to the supermarket, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and generally move around more in the house. One of the symptoms of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s is impaired memory, and regular aerobic exercise is therefore recommended to prevent or delay the onset of these diseases.
Read also: Mental health and healthy aging
An area in the brain called the hippocampus is involved in memory, and it usually shrinks in old age. Physical activity has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus and enhance memory performance in elderly people. Studies on laboratory animals have shown that running increases the generation of a specific type of neurons that are located in the hippocampus and produced throughout life. Since these neurons also have been linked to learning and memory, this can be one of the explanations for why exercise increases these cognitive functions.
Another function of these newly generated neurons is stress coping. Since stress is one of the main causes of mood related disorders, it would be useful to increase the function of these neurons. In addition, several researchers have found evidence that the newly generated neurons are involved in the therapeutic effects of antidepressants. Since exercise has a positive effect on the generation of these neurons, it has beneficial effects for both prevention and treatment of mood related disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Ingrid Åmellem, engineer at CERG
- Ruscheweyh, R., et al., Physical activity and memory functions: an interventional study. Neurobiol Aging, 2011. 32(7): p. 1304-19.
- Erickson, K.I., et al., Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2011. 108(7): p. 3017-22.
- van Praag, H., et al., Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. J Neurosci, 2005. 25(38): p. 8680-5.
- Schloesser, R.J., et al., Environmental enrichment requires adult neurogenesis to facilitate the recovery from psychosocial stress. Mol Psychiatry, 2010. 15(12): p. 1152-63.