April 6, 2012 -- Your brain isn't a muscle, but as you age exercise can improve your memory and other thinking skills, a new study shows.
And the exercise doesn't have to be as rigorous as a marathon, the research suggests.
In the new study, middle-aged men and women who cycled or did a stretching and coordination routine for two hours weekly for six months had improvements in memory and other thinking skills.
Combining the two may provide even better results, says researcher Kirsten Hotting, PhD, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Hamburg, Germany. "I would guess that combining different forms of exercise might enhance their beneficial effects," she tells WebMD.
In late adulthood, experts say, a region of the brain involved in memory, the hippocampus, shrinks.
Previous research has found that this region had grown a year after older adults began to exercise. That growth was accompanied by improved memory.
For the new study, Hotting wanted to focus on middle-aged adults. She evaluated 68 inactive men and women ages 40 to 56. She assigned them to the stretching program or the cycling program.
She added a group of 18 non-active people as a comparison group.
Before the study, everyone got a heart fitness test. Each of the programs were supervised and lasted one hour, twice a week, Hotting says.
"The stretching/coordination training started with a short warm-up phase, followed by stretching and strengthening of the major muscles of the whole body," she says. "Coordination exercises were balance exercises, complex movements of arms and legs, and so on. The training ended with some relaxation exercises."
The cyclists were told to exercise at their target heart rate (as determined by the fitness test) for about 45 minutes, Hotting says. They ended with a cool-down.
Before and after the study, Hotting's team measured memory and other thinking skills.
Exercise and Memory: Results
The cycling group improved their heart fitness by 15%. The stretching and inactive groups did not have noticeable changes in their fitness.