If sport is good for the body, it also seems to be good for the brain.
In assessing memory performance after a sports session, neuroscientists at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, have shown that an intense physical exercise session of just 15 minutes on a bicycle improves memory, including the acquisition of new motor skills. According to their findings, this happens through the action of endocannabinoids, molecules known to increase synaptic plasticity, that is, the way neurons are connected to each other.
This study was published in the scientific magazine 'Scientific Reports' and highlights that often, just after a sport exercise, especially endurance like running or cycling, one feels physical and psychological well-being, this feeling is due to endocannabinoids, small molecules produced by the body during physical effort. "These molecules bind to the receptors of the hippocampus, the main brain structure for memory processing," explains one of the authors of the work, Kinga Igloi.
To test the effect of sport on motor learning, the scientists asked a group of 15 young, healthy men, who were not athletes, to undergo a memory test under three conditions of physical exercise: after 30 minutes of moderate cycling, after 15 minutes of intense cycling (defined as 80 percent of their maximum heart rate), or after a period of rest.
"The exercise was as follows: a screen showed four dots placed side by side. Each time one of the points briefly became a star, the participant had to press the corresponding button as quickly as possible. It followed a predefined and repeated sequence to accurately evaluate how the movements were learned. This is very similar to what we do when, for example, we learn to type on a keyboard as quickly as possible. After an intensive sports session, the performance was much better," says Blanca Marín Bosch, another author.
The different analyses coincide: the faster the individuals are, the more they activate their hippocampus (the brain area of memory) and the caudate nucleus (a brain structure involved in motor processes). Furthermore, the higher the level after intense physical effort, the more the brain is activated and the better the performance of the brain.