Public Health

Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory

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Strolling through the parc

Medical authorities have long suggested that exercise is an essential part of leading a healthy life. Regular physical activity has been shown to not only improve fitness for those of all ages, but also reduce the incidence of many diseases.

While the physical benefits of exercise are well understood, research published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory,” indicates that it can provide significant cognitive benefits as well.

Researchers at the University of Illinois and other institutions conducted a year-long study with 120 older adults, most of whom were in their 60s. Half of the subjects were randomly assigned to an aerobic exercise treatment group, while the remainder participated in a program of regular stretching and resistance training. The subjects were given blood tests, MRI scans and spatial memory tests before and after the study, published in 2011.

The findings include:

  • Subjects in the aerobic exercise group increased average hippocampus volume in the left and right hemispheres by 2.12% and 1.97%, respectively, an average of just over 2%.
  • Over the same one-year interval, the control group that participated in non-aerobic stretching exercises displayed a 1.40% and 1.43% decline.
  • Within the control group, baseline fitness level was a determining factor in minimizing overall hippocampal volume loss.
  • An increase in hippocampal volume is directly correlated with improvements in memory.

The study indicates that aerobic exercise is a simple and cost-effective intervention that can help to reverse the hippocampal volume loss among the nation’s older adult population.

A related study published in The Journals of Gerontology, “Psychomotor Speed and Functional Brain MRI 2 Years After Completing a Physical Activity Treatment,” showed that moderate exercise can help preserve cognitive skills.

Tags: aging, exercise, cognition


By | February 18, 2011

Citation: Erickson, Kirk I.; et al. "Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," January, 2011, PDF. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1015950108.

Media analysis

Read the study-related New York Times article "Walking Down Memory Lane."

  1. Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
  2. Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. (for example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties [e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members] and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?)

Analysis assignments

Read the full study "Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory."

  1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
  2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
  3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

Newswriting assignments

  1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
  4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.

1 comment

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Mark Mar 2, 2011 16:51

So if exercising increases the size of the hippocampus, and the brain is a large part of people’s attraction, exercise must make you more attractive! Purely from a medical point of view of course.
I don’t find this surprising at all since all of the older, active people I know are sharp as tacks.

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