Why Fitness Improves Memory, According to Science

You can add a sharper memory to the ever-growing list of reasons for a sweat sesh.

You’ve heard it before—activities like hitting the gym, rolling out your yoga mat, or pounding the pavement pack substantial, game-changing benefits, including diffusing stress, improving sleep, and making you happier. These sweat perks are enough to convince us to carve out time on the daily for a workout, and according to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, science has just discovered one more reason.

Expanding on previous research linking the size of the hippocampus in young children and older adults to memory, professor of psychology, Aron Barbey, led a group of researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois to take a deeper look at the hippocampus. The team used a special MRI technique to measure the viscoelasticity, or the structural integrity of this region of the brain.

The results? Researchers found that participants who performed better on the fitness test also tended to excel on the memory task. Test subjects with higher fitness levels also had hippocampi with more elastic tissue—the type of tissue structure associated with memory. “We found that when the hippocampus is more elastic, memory is better,” said study co-author Curtis Johnson, “An elastic hippocampus is like a firm foam mattress pad that pops right back up after you get up.” In turn, Johnson explained that more viscuous hippocampi make for worse memory, “like a memory-foam mattress that holds its shape even after you get up.”

So next time you’re battling your inner sloth (you know, the one that’s more interested in Netflix marathons the actual marathons), bring to mind the burgeoning list of benefits that sweat has to offer. Who knows? Maybe when you nail that work presentation without flashcards, or remember a colleagues name the first time you meet, you’ll have your morning run to thank for it.


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