Need Another Reason to Hit the Gym? Exercise Appears to Improve Memory and Learning

Add it to the long list of reasons to hit the gym: Exercise appears to improve memory and learning, according to Wendy Suzuki, PhD, a professor of neural science at New York University who spoke Friday about her recent research.

About five years ago, Suzuki decided to get fit. She started working out five days a week, and a funny thing happened. Like many researchers, she was doing a lot of grant writing at the time. She noticed her writing became sharper, better. Could added exercise explain the change?

Suzuki hit the literature and learned that studies going back 50 years found aerobic exercise can change brains in rodents. More recently, scientists have begun to show similar effects in human children and the elderly. Suzuki wanted to know how an hour on the treadmill might affect the brain of a healthy young adult.

To find out, the newly minted fitness nut got certified as a group exercise leader and developed a new class for undergrads. The students performed an hour of high-intensity aerobic exercise before sitting down to a neuroscience lecture course. At the start and end of the semester, Suzuki and her collaborators tested the students on a task known as pattern separation, in which they had to identify which of two complex shapes they’d seen previously. (She chose the task because it relies on a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, a region where neurogenesis is known to increase in rats given access to an exercise wheel.)

At the end of the semester, students did indeed perform better on the pattern separation test. Control subjects, who took a similar lecture course without the aerobics, actually did worse on the test than they had months earlier. Suzuki suspects the decrease in the controls’ performance might be explained by end-of-semester stressors like exams and final papers. If she’s right, it suggests exercise might also protect the brain from the effects of stress.

Suzuki also observed that students were more engaged and energized during the post-exercise lectures, she said. In future studies, she plans to look more directly at the classroom to ask how exercise might be used to improve student performance and study habits. In the meantime, there’s no reason not to lace up and get moving. “We have evidence now that long-term exercise…has significant effects on cognition in healthy young adults,” she said.

by Kirsten Weir

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