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Study participants who exercised improved their memories.

Want to stay mentally sharp? Just an hour of exercise three times a week can improve memory and brain health in as little as six weeks, according to a small new study.

For the study, researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas divided sedentary adults from the ages of 57 to 75 into an exercise group and a control group. The exercise group rode on a stationary bike or walked on a treadmill for one hour, three times a week, for 12 weeks. Researchers measured memory, resting brain blood flow and fitness levels at the beginning of the study, after six weeks and after 12 weeks.

Within six weeks they found that the exercise group had more blood flow to the hippocampus and anterior cingulate — areas of the brain crucial to memory and attention — even when resting. Within 12 weeks their memories had improved. The study was published yesterday in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

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Previous research has shown that exercise has led to improvements in mental function in six months. This study is the first to show gains in a much shorter period.

“I think that’s really the surprise,” says lead author Sandra B. Chapman. “You are going to get a gain within in a very short period of time in the area you want to improve, not to mention less depression, better sleep and all the other benefits that come from exercise.”

Chapman said that even walking at a quick pace can give people the aerobic exercise they need to improve brain health. Research this week presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego found that exercise can relieve depression and slow age-related memory loss, reports NPR. Previous studies have shown that exercise can cut the lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in half. One study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that older people who completed a six-month program of walking briskly increased the size of their hippocampus, which usually shrinks as we age.

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Chapman says her earlier research has also shown increased blood flow with complex mental thinking. She suspects a combination of physical and mental exercise may be the best approach for improving overall cognitive health.

“We are now beginning to have very strong evidence that you can build brain resilience,” she says. “Every day your brain moves forward or backward —  it doesn’t stay the same for a single moment.”

Photo credit: Sandra Krailo-Gillmore courtesy of the University of Texas at Dallas

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