Research has shown, time and time again, that stress can affect both our physical and mental health. One of the processes that is significantly affected by chronic stress is memory, but there may be an easy way to help our brain to fight this damage.

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A new study suggests that running could safeguard memory in times of stress.

The hippocampus is the region of our brains that is largely responsible for processes of learning and memory.

Normally, memories are formed and stored when new synapses — or the connections between neurons — are established and gradually strengthened over time.

This process is called long-term potentiation (LTP).

However, when we experience chronic stress, research has shown that those synapses are weakened — which means that our memory is also affected.

Recently, researchers from Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, have studied the effects of exercise on memory under conditions of stress. Their study, which was conducted on male mice, revealed that some forms of exercise — running, especially — could have a protective effect on the brain, thereby decreasing the impact of chronic stress on memory.

Running and other types of exercise have already been shown to help people manage or prevent depression, keep the brain healthy for longer, and alter our “cocktail” of gut bacteria, as we have reported on Medical News Today.

Now, Jeff Edwards and colleagues have linked running with maintaining memory health under stressful conditions. They argue — in a paper that is published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory — that this knowledge may enable us to protect our brain health by embarking on nothing more demanding than a refreshing jog.

“Exercise is a simple and cost-effective way to eliminate the negative impacts on memory of chronic stress,” notes Edwards.

The scientists worked with adult male mice, which they split into two groups: active and sedentary. Mice in the active group were provided with running wheels for a period of 4 weeks, during which time they ran an average of 5 kilometers (roughly 3 miles) per day.

After this initial period, half of the mice in each group were exposed to high levels of stress caused by unfriendly conditions over 3 days: on the first day, they swam in cold water; on the second, they walked on an elevated platform; and on the third, they were exposed to short electric shocks.

Within an hour of the animals having undergone these stressful conditions, the LTP of each mouse was then evaluated for changes.

The researchers found that the animals that had been running regularly had much better LTP than the sedentary mice exposed to stress.

In additional experiments, Edwards and colleagues compared the performance of stressed mice that exercised with that of the active but non-stressed mice in a maze-running context.

What they noticed was that the two groups of animals did just as well, suggesting that running had helped to protect the memory of the stressed mice.

Moreover, the mice that had been accustomed to running performed better in the maze memory-testing experiments than the sedentary mice.

All these findings put together suggest that exercise — and running, in particular — could be an effective way to protect memory under conditions of chronic stress.

“The ideal situation,” says Edwards, “for improving learning and memory would be to experience no stress and to exercise. Of course, we can’t always control stress in our lives, but we can control how much we exercise.”

It’s empowering to know that we can combat the negative impacts of stress on our brains just by getting out and running.”

Jeff Edwards