Sports and physical activity don’t just keep the body fit; they also improve memory performance, according to a study in Scientific Reports. Researchers found that an intensive physical exercise session of at least 15 minutes on a bicycle can improve memory and motor skills.

The positive effects of sporting exercise are well-known: endocannabinoids, small molecules produced by the body during physical exertion, circulate in the blood and cross the blood-brain barrier to create feelings of physical and psychological well-being. These molecules also bind to receptors in the brain that process memory, so neuroscientists from the University of Geneva set their sights on how exercise affects this process.

For their study, researchers had a group of 15 young, healthy (but nonathletic) men take a memory test under three conditions: after 30 minutes of moderate cycling, after 15 minutes of intensive cycling (80% of their maximum heart rate), and after a period of rest. Researchers measured participants’ performance on the memory test, while also noting the endocannabinoid levels in their blood and observing changes in activation of brain structures with functional MRI.

Results showed that as exercise became more intense, endocannabinoid levels in the brain also increased, as did activation of brain structures controlling memory and motor processes, resulting in faster performance.

A previous study by the same research team showed the positive effects of sports on associative memory, providing evidence that exercise may be part of future strategies to improve or preserve memory. The team now hopes to further investigate how exercise can be used for individuals with memory disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease.

The study is available in Scientific Reports (2020; 10.1038/s41598-020-72108-1).