HANNOVER, NH — Studies continue to conclude that exercise is good for the body, brain, and overall well-being. However, researchers at Dartmouth College show the true complexity of the relationship between exercise, memory and mental health. Their study reveals that the impact of exercise is much more nuanced; differences in exercise intensity over a long period appear to lead to different outcomes for memory and mental health.
“Mental health and memory are at the heart of almost everything we do in our daily lives,” study lead author Jeremy Manning, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, said in a statement. hurry. “Our study attempts to lay the groundwork for understanding how different exercise intensities affect different aspects of mental and cognitive health.”
No two workouts are the same; some people train at a particularly intense pace, while others take a low-key, less intense approach. The study authors gathered a group of 113 Fitbit users and asked each to complete a series of memory tests, answer a few questions about their mental health, and share their fitness data from last year. The researchers expected more active participants to have better memory performance and display better mental health, but the results weren’t so straightforward.
Taking it easy may be better for your brain
Participants who usually trained at low intensity performed better on certain memory tasks compared to more intense users. Those who trained more intensely also reported higher stress levels, while low-intensity exercisers showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Previous research projects focusing on exercise and memory have mostly only lasted several days or weeks. The Dartmouth team wanted to analyze the effects over a much longer period. Data collected included daily step counts, average heart rates, time spent exercising in different “heart rate zones” defined by FitBit (resting, out of range, fat burning, cardio or peak), as well as additional information collected over a full calendar year.
The team used a total of four specific memory tasks for this project, all designed to assess a different vital aspect of memory over varying time scales. A pair of tasks focused on testing “episodic” memory, or the memory we use to recall events from our past. Another task was to test “spatial” memory, or the type of memory people use to remember locations on a map. The final task tested “associative” memory, or the ability to remember connections between concepts or other memories.
The results show that athletes who were more active in the past year tended to perform better on memory tasks in general, but the specific areas that could be improved varied depending on the person’s typical exercise routine. .
Those who trained at moderate intensities generally performed better on episodic memory tasks, while participants who trained at generally high intensities performed better on spatial memory tasks. Meanwhile, people who didn’t exercise a lot in general generally performed worse on spatial memory tasks.
Mental health disorders affect memory
Notably, the team also found links between participants’ mental health and memory scores. Those who reported suffering from depression or anxiety generally performed better on spatial and associative memory tasks. However, participants with self-reported bipolar disorder scored higher on episodic memory tasks. People under stress tend to perform worse on associative memory tasks.
“When it comes to physical activity, memory and mental health, there’s a very complicated dynamic at play that can’t be summed up in simple phrases like ‘walking improves your memory’ or ‘stress hurts your memory,” says Professor Manning. “Instead, specific forms of physical activity and specific aspects of mental health appear to affect each aspect of memory differently.”
More work is needed, but the study authors are optimistic that their research will one day lead to exciting future applications.
“For example,” Professor Manning concludes, “to help students prepare for an exam or reduce their symptoms of depression, specific exercise programs could be designed to help improve their cognitive performance and mental health.” .
The study is published in Scientific reports.
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