According to new research published in Nature Scientific Reports, regular fitness may help prevent memory loss as you age—but in some surprising ways.
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Over the course of the study, Dartmouth researchers followed 113 participants for a full year, collecting data from their fitness trackers and administering regular memory tests. The use of fitness trackers, by the way, is still a pretty new approach. Unlike other forms of collecting data—like allowing participants to self-report their fitness habits—fitness trackers provide a consistent stream of information that’s not affected by human bias. As you might expect, they’ve opened a lot of doors for cutting-edge health and fitness research.
But the use of fitness trackers isn’t the only reason this study is unique. While plenty of previous research links regular exercise to improved memory, this is the first to examine the effects of the intensity of your exercise.
What the scientists found was that different kinds of exercise may support different types of memory. People who did mostly low-intensity workouts like walking and jogging over the course of the study tended to have better episodic memory (i.e., they were better at remembering details from stories or events in their pasts). Those who did mainly high-intensity workouts, on the other hand, tended to have better spatial memory.
It’s important to note that the study only looked at correlations between types of exercise and memory; it wasn’t able to draw any conclusions about causation.
So, for example, it’s possible that the kinds of people who prefer walking or light jogging happen to be people who enjoy calmly taking in their environment, and that’s why they’re better at remembering the details of meetings or events. Likewise, it’s possible that the people who gravitate toward HIIT workouts are people who enjoy complex, coordinated movements or who have problem-solving mindsets, and that’s why they have better spatial memory.
That said, other research suggests that there may be some causation effect between exercise and memory in general.
In a 2013 review and meta-analysis, researchers concluded that even a single workout can improve recall of information that’s presented post-exercise. Other studies have shown that years of consistent exercise can both improve working memory and provide a defense against long-term memory loss. Better yet, research suggests that people of all ages—from children to older adults—can experience these benefits.
While the scientists from the Dartmouth study couldn’t make specific recommendations about what kind of exercise you should do (much more research is necessary before that’s possible), their results suggest that it might not hurt to do both high- and low-intensity exercise. Just as you would hit the trail for leg day and lift weights for arm day, consider taking a casual bike ride for your episodic memory on some days, and crank out hill sprints for your spatial memory on others.
Maybe one day doctors will be able to prescribe training plans for our memories as well as for our muscles. But in the meantime, consider this study yet another reason to make exercise, especially outdoor exercise, a lifelong habit.