According to a recent study on exercise, memory and ageing, working out would make our brain and its muscles more fit.
Research has shown that even a single workout can improve our brain functions and help us recognize common names. But it is more than that, it could also lead to long-term improvements since the positive effects accumulate.
We used to think that our brains do not change by the time we are adults, particularly in comparison to muscles and malleable tissues that evolve depending on our activities. But new experiments actually show that our brains are quite plastic and that they can reshape themselves in many different ways.
According to studies, regular exercise can improve our thinking abilities and increase the volume of the hippocampus, which is in charge of regulating motivation, emotion, learning, and memory.
But the question is whether changes can actually last, or if they are bound to be short-term effects. On this topic, the University of Maryland published a study in 2013 looking at the long-term effects of exercise linked with semantic memory.
Semantic memory is long-term memory referring to ideas and concepts such as names of colours, famous people, or any cultural knowledge that we build over a lifetime. But it is also the first type of memory that disappears when people age.
The Maryland study showed that 12 weeks of treadmill walking make our brains less active during semantic memory tests, which means it is more efficient and requires less resources to access memories.
A study published in April 2019 in The Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society was mostly interested in the way a single workout could change our brains. They recruited 26 healthy persons between 55 and 85 and asked them to exercise on a bike for 30 minutes.
They then went to an MRI brain scanner and were shown names that were a mix of famous people’s names and regular names taken out of a phone book. They had to press one key for celebrities’ names and another one for names they did not recognize.
This time, the brain parts for semantic memory were much more active after people exercised than when they rested. The scientists were surprised but understood it was the start of a training response.
“There is an analogy to what happens with muscles,” said J. Carson Smith, an associate professor of kinesiology and director of the Exercise for Brain Health Laboratory.
When people start exercising, their muscles strain and burn but then they become more efficient, as we become fitter. In the same way, our brain remodels and improves itself with continued exercise. It becomes fitter.
The study does not show the different steps in our brain changing and how physical activity alters it, although Smith believes it must be linked to neurotransmitters and other biochemicals.They are planning future studies in order to examine these issues and to determine what would be the best types and amounts of exercise for our brains.