The phrase “jog your memory” takes on new meaning in light of research that shows the simple act of running can help improve memory and brain health. Scientists from Brigham Young University found that jogging helps lessen the effects chronic stress has on the hippocampus, a key area of the brain for learning and memory.
Chronic stress—the kind that triggers the endocrine system to release corticosteroids—weakens the connections between neurons in the hippocampus over time, eventually halting the creation of new neurons altogether. Chronic stress has been shown to hasten brain decline in people with mild cognitive impairment and is considered a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
For this study, scientists divided mice into four groups: a group that used running wheels and was exposed to stressful events, such as swimming in cold water or walking on an elevated platform; a group that used running wheels and was not exposed to stress; and two sedentary groups, one that experienced stressful events and one that didn’t. The researchers then used electrophysiology to measure the brain’s long-term potentiation (LTP)–the strengthening of synapses and connections between neurons.
They found that the stressed mice that exercised had much stronger neuron connections than the stressed mice that did not. In a maze running activity that tested memory, stressed mice who exercised performed just as well as non-stressed mice who exercised. The mice that used running wheels made fewer errors in the memory maze than the sedentary mice, suggesting that exercise may be able to mitigate the damaging effects of chronic stress on the brain and memory.
“Exercise is a simple and cost-effective way to eliminate the negative impacts on memory of chronic stress,” said study lead author Jeff Edwards, associate professor of physiology and developmental biology at BYU.
The study points to the steps we can take to limit the impact of stress on overall brain health, even if we can’t remove stress entirely from our lives.
“The ideal situation for improving learning and memory would be to experience no stress and to exercise,” said Edwards. “Of course, we can’t always control stress in our lives, but we can control how much we exercise. It’s empowering to know that we can combat the negative impacts of stress on our brains just by getting out and running.”
This study was published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.