Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have found that sport and memory go hand in hand. The study, published in Scientific Reports, evaluated memory performance following a sport session by looking at the action of endocannabinoids, which increase synaptic plasticity.
Intensive physical exercise sessions, some as short as 15 minutes on a bicycle, improved memory and even the acquisition of new motor skills. To determine this, 15 young men (not athletes) took a memory test under three conditions of physical exercise: after 30 minutes of moderate cycling, after 15 minutes of intensive cycling (defined as 80% of their maximum heart rate), or after a period of rest.
"The exercise was as follows: a screen showed four points placed next to each other. Each time one of the dots briefly changed into a star, the participant had to press the corresponding button as quickly as possible," explained Blanca Marin Bosch, co-author and researcher in the laboratory of professor Sophie Schwartz at UNIGE Faculty of Medicine's Department of Basic Neurosciences. "It followed a predefined and repeated sequence in order to precisely evaluate how movements were learn[ed]. This is very similar to what we do when, for example, we learn to type on a keyboard as quickly as possible. After an intensive sports session, the performance was much better."
The researchers also observed changes in the activation of brain structures with functional MRI, and performed blood tests to measure endocannabinoid levels. They found that a sport session of moderate intensity produced better results, meaning that not all sports intensities have the same effects. However, physical exercise improved memory more than inaction in all cases.
The study concluded that school programs and strategies aimed at reducing the effects of neurodegeneration on memory could indeed benefit from adding exercise.