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You’ve probably gotten the message that physical exercise builds brainpower. A new study shows that it boosts memory, in particular, by increasing the size of the hippocampus, a brain region critical to long-term memory storage.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers reported that adults between the ages of 55 and 80 who walked for 40 minutes three times a week for a year had a roughly 2 percent increase in hippocampus volume in both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Participants who did aerobic exercise also had higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that helps support existing neurons and build new ones. Older adults who were assigned a stretching routine without aerobic exercises did not exhibit an increase in hippocampus volume.

“This is the first study to show that the hippocampus can actually be modified by participating in moderate amounts of exercise,” says Kirk Erickson, PhD, a coauthor of the paper and psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Since the hippocampus can atrophy with age, this news is especially relevant for older adults. But, says Erickson, everyone can benefit: “More research is starting to suggest that exercise earlier in life could act as a protective barrier against disease and brain atrophy later in life. It’s in your brain’s best interest to start the exercise habit early.”

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