The age-old stereotype of the dumb jock may be coming to an end, as a new study suggests that physical fitness can lead to improved spatial memory and increased brain function.
Several studies have indicated that bigger is better when it comes to the hippccampus, and now researchers at the University of Pittsburg and the University of Illinois have linked its size to physical fitness.
The hippocampus, located deep inside the medial temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex, is essential to memory formation. The first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, it is essential for spatial navigation, relational memory — which allows the brain to connect disparate pieces of information — and information recollection.
Previous studies have indicated that the hippocampus deteriorates with age, causing memory to decline. Past research has linked exercise and increased hippocampus size in rodents, but psychology professors Art Kramer and Kirk Erickson, who led the study, and their colleagues have demonstrated the same effect in humans.
Larry Mengelkoch, a professor at the USF School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences, said an active lifestyle can promote neurogenesis, the development of nerve tissue, and protect the nervous system from injury and disease.
The study measured the cardio respiratory fitness levels of 165 adults aged 59 to 81. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to examine hippocampus size and spatial memory capacity.
The study reflected a significant correlation between physical fitness and hippocampus size. The results are important because the hippocampus controls the part of the memory that people rely on daily to store new information.
Few studies have examined how physical activity affects the academic performance of young adults, Mengelkoch said. Research on children aged 4 to 18 has shown a correlation between physical fitness and cognitive ability, including perception, IQ, academics and test performance, he said.
Though student athletes at USF may not have noticed a significant correlation between their physical fitness and memory, many believe their fitness routines have had a positive influence on their academic performance.
“I seem to get more work done in a more timely manner,” said mechanical engineering major Rafsan Syed, who plays intramural soccer. “My studying seems to be more effective.”
Pre-medical science major Kay Kay Enigbokan also said his participation in intramural sports on campus has led to better grades.
“I didn’t play any sports during my first semester and also didn’t take many classes. Now I take 18 credits while also playing basketball and soccer,” he said.
Biology major Alysha Romero said sports give her the energy to study more and do better in class.
Student athletes are not necessarily at an academic advantage because studies indicate that even moderate physical activity is enough to maintain brain function, Mengelkoch said. Most students will be able to sustain memory function with simple aerobic exercises, he said.
The results of this study are significant because they support the concept that an active lifestyle can benefit one’s mental health, Erikson said
“Basically, if you stay fit, you retain key regions of your brain involved in learning and memory,” he said.