I’ve never been an early morning riser—instead, I’m a natural-born night owl. I like to stay up late and sleep in as long as possible. This was a difficult life to lead in high school, since I had to wake up at 6 a.m. to catch the bus, but it was smooth-sailing when I started college.
I avoided 8 a.m.’s at all costs and didn’t commit to anything until the late afternoons. Sure, this might sound a little excessive, but I was willing to do just about anything to free-up my mornings so I could sleep in.
Flash forward a few years and I’m back to waking up at 6 a.m. every morning. I’m a real adult now, with a real job and a real need to be up before noon. But get this: I don’t technically have to wake up until 7 a.m. to make it to work in time. I choose to wake up earlier so I can run before work. A few years ago, I would’ve laughed at the thought of waking up early to workout. But now I understand just how beneficial it can be. Not only does it set me up to have a productive day, it puts me in a good mood, relieves me of stress, and—according to new research—helps protect my memory.
This study, which is published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, says that exercising (running specifically) can lessen the harmful effects stress has on the hippocampus—an area of the brain crucial to learning and memory. “Exercise is a simple and cost-effective way to eliminate the negative impacts on memory of chronic stress,” explained senior author of the study and associate professor of physiology and developmental biology at Bingham Young University.
Strong connections between neurons make for optimal memory formation and recall—but chronic stress weakens those connections, and therefore, one’s memory. This group of researchers found that when an individual exercises while under said stress, those connections don’t weaken but remain normal. To reach this discovery, they carried out several experiments with mice. One group of mice ran on running wheels for a total of four weeks, while another group of mice remained inactive. Then, half of each group was exposed to stressful situations, such as being forced to swim in cold water or walk on an elevated platform.
One hour after this stress induction, the researchers carried our electrophysiology experiments on the mice’s brains to measure LTP (or long-term potentiation, which is the process of synaptic strengthening). They found that the stressed mice who had exercised had significantly greater LTP than the stressed mice who did not exercise. The team also found that the stressed mice who exercised performed as well as the non-stressed mice who exercised during a maze-running experiment, designed to test their memory. Furthermore, the exercising mice made significantly fewer memory errors in the maze experiment as compared with the sedentary mice.
Edwards’ team concludes that exercise is a viable method for protecting our memory from the negative impacts of chronic stress. “The ideal situation for improving learning and memory would be to experience no stress and to exercise. 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,” Edwards says.
Hollingshead, T. (2018, February 13). Running helps the brain counteract negative effect of stress, study finds. Brigham Young University. Retrieved on February 16, 2018 from https://news.byu.edu/news/running-helps-brain-counteract-negative-effect-stress-study-finds