Summary: Specific strengths of long-term exercise are associated with various aspects of memory and mental health.

Source: Dartmouth College

Exercise can improve cognitive and brain health—but not all types and intensities of exercise affect the brain equally. A new study from Dartmouth shows that long-term specific exercise is linked to various aspects of memory and brain health, so the effects of exercise are greatly exaggerated.

The findings were published in Scientific reports and provide insight into how to improve physical activity.

“Mental health and memory are central to everything we do in our daily lives,” says Jeremy Manning, assistant professor of psychology and brain sciences at Dartmouth. “Our research is trying to build a foundation for understanding how different types of physical activity affect different mental and cognitive health.”

The researchers asked 113 Fitbit users to take a series of memory tests, answer some questions about their mental health, and share their fitness data from the past year. They expected that more active individuals would have better memory and mental health, but the results were more complex.

People who exercised at low intensity did better on some memory tasks, while those who exercised at high intensity did better on other memory tasks. The most active participants also reported higher levels of anxiety, while those who regularly exercised less often showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.

Previous studies have often focused on the effects of exercise on memory over relatively short periods of several days or weeks, but the Dartmouth researchers wanted to examine the effects over a longer period of time.

The data includes daily step counts, average heart rate, how much time you spend exercising in different “heart rate zones” on your FitBit (rest, off-range, fat burning, cardio or max) and other data collected. Over a full calendar year. Participants in the study were recruited online from Amazon Mechanical Turkey through a busy workforce.

The four memory tasks used in the study were designed to examine participants’ abilities at different points in time. Two sets of tasks were designed to test “episodic” memory—the same type of memory used to recall autobiographical events as if they happened yesterday.

Another set of tasks is designed to test “spatial” memory – the same type of memory used to remember places where you parked your car. The last set of tasks tested “associative” memory – the ability to remember relationships between concepts or other memories.

Participants who had been more active in the previous year tended to show better memory overall, but specific areas of improvement depended on what types of activities people engaged in.

The researchers found that participants who exercised more often at moderate intensity tended to perform better on spatial memory tasks, while participants who exercised more often at high intensity did better on spatial memory tasks. Sedentary participants who exercised infrequently tended to perform worse on spatial memory tasks.

This shows when someone looks at Fitbit.
Participants who had been more active in the previous year tended to show better memory overall, but specific areas of improvement depended on what types of activities people engaged in. The image is in the public domain.

The researchers also identified a relationship between the participants’ mental health and their memory. Participants with self-reported anxiety or depression tended to perform better on spatial and memory tasks, while those with self-reported bipolar disorder tended to perform better on episodic memory tasks. Participants who reported higher levels of stress tended to perform worse on memory tasks.

The team has made all their data and code freely available Github For anyone who wants to browse the database.

“There are complex dynamics at play when it comes to exercise, memory and mental health that can’t be summed up in a single sentence like ‘walking improves your memory’ or ‘stress hurts your memory,'” says Manning.

“Instead, it appears that specific types of exercise and specific aspects of mental health affect each aspect of memory differently.”

With more research, the team says their findings could have some interesting applications. “For example,” Manning said, “specific physical activities can be designed to help students prepare for a test or reduce their depression symptoms to help improve their cognitive performance and mental health.”

watch out

It depicts a depressed teenage girl.

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Author: Amy Olsen
Source: Dartmouth College
Contact: Amy Olson – Dartmouth College
Image: The image is in the public domain.

Preliminary study: Open Access.
Fitness tracking reveals functional relationships between memory, mental health and physical activity” by Jeremy Manning et al Scientific reports


Draft

Fitness tracking reveals functional relationships between memory, mental health and physical activity

Physical activity can benefit physical and mental well-being. Different types of exercise (eg, aerobic versus anaerobic, jogging, swimming or running versus yoga, high-volume interval training versus endurance exercise, etc.) affect fitness in different ways. For example, running can greatly affect leg and heart strength but have a modest effect on arm strength.

We hypothesized that the mental benefits of physical activity may vary similarly. In particular, we focused on how different types of physical activity relate to different aspects of memory and mental health.

To test our hypothesis, we collected a century’s worth of fitness data (overall). We then asked participants to fill out surveys asking them to self-report on various aspects of their mental health. We also asked participants to perform a memory task that tested their short- and long-term episodic, semantic, and spatial memory.

We found that participants with similar exercise habits and fitness profiles tended to exhibit similar mental health and functional performance profiles. These effects were task-oriented, as different exercise patterns or physical characteristics differed in different aspects of memory, in different tasks.

Taken together, these findings provide the basis for designing exercise programs that target specific components of cognitive performance and mental health using low-cost fitness tracking devices.

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