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Having trouble remembering the name of that actor in Star Wars or recalling the capital of Alaska? A growing body of research suggests you may want to consider working out — and a recent study may explain why.

Earlier research led by J. Carson Smith, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, found reduced activity in regions of the brain associated with semantic memory (the long-term recollection of facts, information, and concepts) after participants completed a 12-week walking program.

This may seem counterintuitive — but in the case of semantic memory, lower activity suggests higher efficiency, which means recalling “Harrison Ford” or “Juneau” requires fewer resources.

More recently, Smith aimed to explore the role of a single workout on semantic memory. He expected that areas of the brain associated with it would be less active, too. But after participants completed 30 minutes of exercise, Smith and his team found those brain areas buzzing.

“There is an analogy to what happens with muscles,” he explains. Muscles strain and burn through energy when you first start exercising, but over time and after repeated use, the muscles become more efficient. Eventually, exercised muscles will use less energy to perform the same amount of work.

The same may be true for your brain, which — like your muscles — can adapt when you make changes to your lifestyle. The increase in brain activity after acute exercise may reflect a flexing of neural networks, which promotes adaptations that develop more efficient access to memories over time.

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