The study – published in the journal of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory – found that running can combat the impact chronic stress has on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
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A number of prior studies have reported that exposure to stress can impair these vital tasks. Proper memory formation and recall happens when the connections between neurons in the hippocampus are strengthened over time, a process called long-term potentiation (LTP). Prolonged stress weakens these connections, decreasing LTP and diminishing memory.
In the recent study, mice were split into two groups one of which used running wheels over a four week period (averaging a distance of five kilometres each day) while the other group was left sedentary. Both groups were then put into stressful situations like walking on an elevated platform or swimming in cold water before their LTP was measured.
They found that in the mice who exercised, LTP levels were not decreased and they made significantly fewer memory errors than sedentary mice when put through a maze-running memory exercise.
"The ideal situation for improving learning and memory would be to experience no stress and to exercise," said study lead author Jeff Edwards, associate professor of physiology and developmental biology at Bingham Young University. "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."