How Running Can Help Jog Your Memory

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Wish you were better at remembering people’s names or could call up random sports facts from your memory during trivia nights at the bar? Keep up with those daily runs.

Runners reap a host of physical benefits, ranging from healthier bones to longer lives. Now a team of researchers have zeroed in on how running can improve memory, too.

The new research shows muscle tissues secrete a protein, known as cathepsin B, that is then transported to the brain, directly linking exercise to memory in mice. The researchers, whose findings were published in Cell Metabolism, also discovered that after a run, the protein levels increased in the blood of monkeys and humans, too.

For the study, the researchers recruited 43 students, who were mostly sedentary. About half of the study participants were thrust into a four-month exercise regimen involving treadmill workouts several times a week. The protein Cathepsin B levels spiked in the students who were exercising, and they were able to better perform a memory task that involved drawing a geometric pattern that was shown to them about 30 minutes earlier. Those who showed the best memory gains were the ones who had the highest levels of the protein.

Sustained exercise could help keep the Cathepsin B levels high and the memory sharp. Henriette van Praag, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Aging and senior study author, says people often ask how many hours they need exercise to get the benefits. The study, though, supports that more substantial changes occur with a consistently healthy lifestyle and long-term exercise regimen.

While it hasn’t been studied, the spike in the protein could have benefits that last for a few months, speculates Emrah Duzel, a neurologist from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, who was part of the research team.

It’s also possible other forms of cardiovascular exercise could boost your memory much like running does, Duzel says.

“We haven’t compared different forms of exercise,” Duzel says, “[but] we believe that the key requirement is that the muscles are anaerobic during the exercise — that is, the exercise needs to be moderate to high intensity.”

Cathepsin B, a somewhat understudied protein, has been more notoriously recognized as a protein secreted by tumors, linked to cell death as well as brain plaque formation associated with Alzheimer’s. For that reason, it’s best to keep the protein level up naturally through exercise, rather than trying to raise its levels artificially with supplements.

In the experiment involving mice, researchers found that the mice churning their exercise wheels and producing Cathepsin B performed better in a swim maze than their counterparts that were unable to produce the protein. In the experiment, mice were placed in a small pool, tasked with using their memory to find a platform hidden below the water’s surface.

The scientists also tested Rhesus monkeys, and found exercise increased the levels of the protein in their blood.

A separate study exploring memory and running published in May from researchers at the University of North Florida found that running barefoot is better than running with shoes when it comes to improving your working memory. (Working memory is defined as memory that goes beyond rote memorization and requires your brain to process and remember information, like remembering steps in a recipe as you cook a meal).

The results of the research, published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, found an increase of about 16 percent in working memory performance in the barefoot-running condition compared to no increase in the runners wearing shoes, perhaps because barefoot runners are relying on their working memory to help them steer clear of objects like jagged rocks.

“We’ve found that working memory is used on a daily basis in a range of activities, from holding conversations to completing reports at work,” says Tracy Alloway, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Northern Florida and study author.

Given that working memory is very closely associated to short-term memory, which is responsible for your ability to remember a name or a phone number, it's likely that short-term memory could improve as well. So whether you log miles on the treadmill or track and with shoes or without, you're likely to remember your next run — and everything else — a little more clearly.