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Exercise doesn’t just benefit your legs, arms, heart and torso. Many studies have shown that exercise also has beneficial effects on the brain.

What is the evidence?

Researchers at UCLA in California have been following a group of participants for a study since 1948, representing nearly sixty years of research. This study was originally started to assess heart function and its relation to exercise. Over the years, its scope has expanded and there have been some very interesting results.

How can exercise help memory?

Most of us assume that the brain is the one muscle that cannot be made bigger with exercise. This is not the case! There is a part of the brain that can be increased, whatever your age.

This is the hippocampus, located almost in the centre of the brain. (If you are wondering, the name means ‘seahorse’ after the shape.) It controls functions ranging from co-ordination to emotion, and is particularly associated with memory.

The studies are finding that physical exercise produces new cells in the hippocampus. These effects are recorded not just on the usual lab animals, but also on human subjects. Bigger hippocampus equals better memory, and the results back this up. Regular exercisers in the UCLA study are indeed showing better mental capacity and lower incidence of dementia with age.

What else should I do for my hippocampus?

Regular exercise is essential. Whatever you do to get moving will help, from a brisk walk to a full-on gym workout. What matters is that you do it often. Try to average half an hour of exercise per day during the week.

The right food also helps, and this is another area where the high-veg, low-processed Mediterranean diet is a winner. Finally, keep your brain active and happy by lowering stress, getting a good night’s sleep whenever possible and keeping your mind occupied.

We know that people that exercise are healthier in body. It now looks as if exercisers are also fitter in mind. Good news all round!

the author

Jessica Ambrose

Jessica is a fitness writer who loves long distance running, yoga, strength training and healthy eating.