Study explores how different forms of exercise impact cognition and mental health

A recent study found that exercise’s effects on mental health and memory may depend on the duration and intensity of physical activity.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, was conducted by a team of researchers at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Researchers sought to discover how exercise can be optimized to improve cognitive and mental health.

“Mental health and memory are central to nearly everything we do in our everyday lives,” said lead author Jeremy Manning, PhD, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. “Our study is trying to build a foundation for understanding how different intensities of physical exercise affect different aspects of mental and cognitive health.”

The study involved 113 volunteers. Each participant used a fitness tracker and were asked to share their fitness data from the previous year. Then, they were asked to take a series of memory tests. Two of the tests observed the subjects’ episodic memory, used to remember autobiographical events. The next two tasks measured spatial memory, used to remember locations. The final test analyzed the participants’ associative memory, used to remember connections between memories and concepts. Participants also self-reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health illnesses.

The study’s results showed that overall, participants who were more active tended to perform better on the memory tests, however, the intensity and duration of exercise played a role in what kind of memory was improved. For instance, researchers found that participants who generally participated in moderate intensity exercises often did better on episode memory tasks. Participants who exercised at high intensity rates tended to do better on spatial memory tasks. In contrast, those who rarely exercised generally performed worse on spatial memory tasks.

In addition, researchers found associations between mental health and memory tasks. Those who self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression often performed better on spatial and associative memory tasks. Those who reported symptoms of bipolar disorder did better on episodic memory tasks. Participants that reported higher levels of stress tended to perform worse on associative memory tasks, according to the study.

This study suggests that different forms of physical activity may affect memory and mental health in different ways. According to researchers, these results could be applied to create specific exercises to improve specific forms of memory or symptoms of mental health problems.

“When it comes to physical activity, memory, and mental health, there’s a really complicated dynamic at play that cannot be summarized in single sentences like ‘walking improves your memory’ or ‘stress hurts your memory,’” said Manning. “Instead, specific forms of physical activity and specific aspects of mental health seem to affect each aspect of memory differently.”