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Optimizing exercise: specific links between exercise, memory and mental health revealed by fitness trackers

New research reveals that the effects of exercise on the brain are nuanced, with different forms and intensities having different effects on your cognitive and mental health.

Exercise can improve your mental and cognitive health, but not all forms and intensities of exercise affect the brain in the same way. In fact, according to a new study from Dartmouth, the effects of exercise are much more nuanced. He found that specific intensities of exercise over a long period of time are associated with different aspects of memory and mental health. The results were recently published in the journal Scientific reports and provide insight into how the exercise could be optimized.

“Mental health and memory are at the heart of almost everything we do in our daily lives,” says lead author Jeremy Manning. He is an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. “Our study attempts to lay the groundwork for understanding how different exercise intensities affect different aspects of mental and cognitive health.”

For the study, the researchers recruited 113 Fitbit users. They were asked to complete a series of memory tests, answer a few questions about their mental health and share their fitness data from the previous year. Scientists expected more active individuals to have better memory performance and mental health, but the results were more nuanced. Participants who tended to exercise at low intensity performed better on some memory tasks while those who exercised at high intensity performed better on other memory tasks. People who were more intensely active also reported higher levels of stress, while those who exercised regularly at lower intensities had lower rates of depression and anxiety.

Previous research has generally focused on the effects of exercise on memory over a relatively short period of time, such as days or weeks. However, the Dartmouth scientists wanted to analyze the effects on a much longer timescale. Data collected included average heart rates, daily step count, time spent exercising in different “heart rate zones” as defined by FitBit (resting, out of range, fat burn, cardio or peak ) and other information. collected over a full calendar year. Study participants were recruited online from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an outsourced workforce.

There were four types of memory tasks used in the study, which were designed to probe different aspects of participants’ abilities, over different time scales. Two sets of tasks were designed to test ‘episodic’ memory – the same kind of memory used to remember autobiographical events, like what you did yesterday. Another set of tasks was developed to test “spatial” memory – the same type of memory used to remember locations, like where you parked your car. The final set of tasks aimed to test “associative” memory – the ability to remember connections between concepts or other memories.

Participants who had been more active in the previous year tended to show better memory performance overall. However, the specific areas of improvement depended on the types of activities people engaged in. The researchers found that participants who trained often at moderate intensities tended to perform better on episodic memory tasks while those who trained often at high intensities performed better on spatial memory tasks. Sedentary participants who rarely exercised generally performed worse on spatial memory tasks.

The research team also identified links between participants’ mental health and their memory performance. Participants with self-reported anxiety or depression tended to perform better on spatial and associative memory tasks. People with self-reported bipolar disorder tended to perform better on episodic memory tasks. Those who reported higher stress levels tended to perform worse on associative memory tasks.

All data and code has been made freely available by the research team on Github for anyone who wants to explore or better understand the dataset.

“When it comes to physical activity, memory and mental health, there’s a very complicated dynamic at play that can’t be summed up in simple phrases like ‘walking improves your memory’ or ‘stress hurts your memory,'” Manning explains. “Instead, specific forms of physical activity and specific aspects of mental health appear to affect each aspect of memory differently.”

With further research, the researchers say their findings could have interesting applications. “For example,” Manning explains, “to help students prepare for an exam or reduce their symptoms of depression, specific exercise programs could be designed to help improve their cognitive performance and mental health.”

Reference: “Fitness Tracking Reveals Task-Specific Associations Between Memory, Mental Health, and Physical Activity” by Jeremy R. Manning, Gina M. Notaro, Esme Chen, and Paxton C. Fitzpatrick, August 15 2022, Scientific reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-17781-0


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