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We all know that certain types of exercise affect certain parts of the body, but what if we could design workouts to target specific parts of the brain?

That’s the question Jeremy Manning, PhD, and his team of Dartmouth College researchers set out to answer when they collected a year’s worth of activity data on 113 Fitbit users and correlated it with the participants’ performance on a variety of memory tests.

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

Manning and his colleagues expected to find a clear and positive association between physical activity and functional memory — as well as mental health. But the results, published in Scientific Reports, suggest a more nuanced connection.

Participants who favored low-intensity workouts performed better on some memory tests, for example, while high-intensity exercisers scored higher on others. Low-intensity exercisers reported low rates of anxiety and depression, while their more athletic counterparts tended to have higher levels of stress.

Overall, participants who were more active than average performed better on memory tests than less-active study participants, but the type of memory (episodic, associative, and ­spatial) in which they excelled depended on the type of exercise they performed.

“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,’” Manning explains. “Instead, specific forms of physical activity and specific aspects of mental health seem to affect each aspect of memory differently.”

This article originally appeared as “Building a Better Brain via Exercise” in the June 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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