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  • 30 Minutes of 'Acute' Exercise Temporarily Boosts Memory-Related Brain Activity, Strengthens Brain Over Time

    That name on the tip of your tongue might be easier to retrieve after 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, according to new research that links "acute" bouts of exercise with increased activity in areas of the brain associated with a certain type of memory. Researchers believe that the postexercise spike in activity may function as a kind of workout for the brain that, over time, can increase neural efficiency and slow cognitive decline associated with aging.

    In the study, published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, researchers monitored brain activity of 26 adults between 55 and 85 years old as they were quizzed on their recognition of famous names (the "Famous Names Task," or FNT). Each adult was tested twice: once after sitting quietly for 30 minutes, and on another day after engaging in 30 minutes of moderate-level exercise on a stationary cycle.

    The computer-based FNT presents subjects with names of famous people and names of individuals randomly selected from a phone book. Test-takers press 1 key for a famous name, and a different key for a name they don't recognize as famous. For the study, participants' brain activity was monitored as well as their speed and accuracy on the FNT.

    Researchers were focused on areas of the brain associated with semantic memory, the type of memory used to access the store of knowledge humans accumulate over time. Difficulty with semantic memory—for instance, an inability to remember a name—is one of the most common complaints of older adults, and has been associated with early stages of more severe cognitive decline.

    Researchers already knew that regular physical activity can improve cognition in older adults by sparking as-yet understood neurological changes that make the brain work less hard, and that's what they expected to see happening in the brains of participants who had recently exercised. Indeed, participants did score better on the FNT after exercise; but instead of seeing a more efficiently operating brain post exercise, researchers recorded increased levels of brain activity, a kind of short-term supercharging of some of the areas they were studying.

    Authors of the study think that the increased activity is related to the use of "compensatory neural networks," the networks associated with the "cognitive reserve" observed in physically active older adults. In other words, that postexercise brain activity workout may be clearing the way for more efficient cognitive operations over time.

    "We speculate that performing a single bout of exercise elicits a short-term impact on the upregulation and expression of neurotransmitters and neural growth factors that promotes increased neural activation," authors write. "With regular participation in exercise, this process repeatedly occurs; a stress to the system followed by recovery and adaptation. This may promote a greater capacity within neural networks."

    Research-related stories featured in PT in Motion News are intended to highlight a topic of interest only and do not constitute an endorsement by APTA. For synthesized research and evidence-based practice information, visit the association's PTNow website.