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Research Confirms How Physical Activity Can Impact Your Memory

Scientists have long recognized the positive effects of exercise on brain health, but the exact mechanism behind this relationship has only recently become clearer. Recent studies have revealed that muscle contractions during physical activity release molecules known as myokines, which stimulate neuron function. Even small amounts of daily exercise can protect the brain from cognitive decline by improving blood flow and activating biochemical pathways that support neuron functionality, as explained by Arjun V. Masurkar, MD, PhD, clinical core director of NYU Langone’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

Isn’t it fascinating?

Further contributing to our understanding, a study published last February demonstrated that aerobic exercise enhances episodic memory. Now, researchers at Dartmouth College have gone a step further by showing that while aerobic exercise boosts episodic memory, anaerobic exercise improves spatial memory. Both of these memory types are crucial for retrieving different kinds of information.

Distinguishing between episodic and spatial memory

Memory is not simply divided into long-term and short-term categories. Instead, think of it as a tree with various branches, including episodic and spatial memory.

Episodic memory involves recalling events, places, people, meals, books, etc., related to your life experiences, according to Sarah Kremen, MD, director of the Neurobehavior Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Spatial memory, on the other hand, focuses on remembering directions or the location of specific items. Dr. Kremen highlights the interconnected nature of these two memory types, citing an example of spatial-episodic memory, such as finding where you parked your car. Both episodic and spatial memory are vital for retaining information in the short and long term.

Importance of maintaining episodic and spatial memory

Episodic and spatial memory are associated with different regions of the hippocampus. Boosting both memory types is essential for acquiring various skills needed to navigate daily life effectively, explains Dr. Kremen.

If you struggle with remembering events, it can hinder your ability to recall past occurrences or plan for the future. Strengthening memory through activities like exercise is crucial, as noted by Dr. Kremen. She emphasizes that exercise is as significant as adhering to medication regimens, maintaining mental well-being, or following a healthy diet. Ideally, a combination of anaerobic and aerobic exercise each week is recommended.

Optimal workouts for enhancing memory

In the Dartmouth study, participants’ fitness tracker data was analyzed alongside memory test performance. Heart rate indicators were used to assess exercise intensity levels over a year.

There isn’t a specific workout type that exclusively boosts episodic or spatial memory. Instead, performing exercises falling within moderate or high-intensity levels is beneficial. If you lack a fitness tracker, you can gauge your intensity levels using the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale:

  • 0 to 1: Very light—almost effortless
  • 2 to 3: Light—can carry on a conversation easily
  • 4 to 5: Moderate to light—able to talk in full sentences before taking a breath
  • 6 to 7: Moderate to hard—able to talk but breathing heavily
  • 8 to 9: Hard to very hard—uncomfortable effort
  • 10: Very, very hard—maximum effort for short periods

Anaerobic exercise entails working at 80% or more of your maximum heart rate, while aerobic exercise is maintained at 50% to 70% of the maximum heart rate.

Since both types of exercise offer brain and overall health benefits, it’s recommended to include a mix of both. A balance of 65% aerobic and 35% anaerobic exercise is a good rule of thumb, as suggested by Fhitting Room trainer Ben Lauder-Dykes.

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