Many of us may have heard that exercise can have a positive effect on brain health, but exactly how muscle activity is linked to memory has been relatively unknown. Now, researchers have found that a protein produced by muscles during exercise called “cathepsin B” is part of the answer. A team of scientists in the U.S. and Germany recently reported in Cell Metabolism that levels of cathepsin B are positively connected with fitness and memory.
Research was conducted on mice, monkeys and human participants. The findings showed that when muscles move they produce cathepsin B, which travels to the brain and triggers neuron growth. Henriette van Praag, a brain science investigator at the National Institute on Aging and an author of this study, told NPR that the finding “provides another piece to the puzzle.”
In mice and rhesus monkeys, the animals exercised in time frames ranging from two weeks to four months, and all participants had elevated levels of cathepsin B in their blood. This increase was associated with improved memory recall in both sets of participants.
In the final step of the study, researchers selected 43 university students with a sedentary lifestyle and divided them into two groups. While one group remained sedentary, the other group participated in regular exercise on a treadmill. At the conclusion, the latter group showed elevated blood levels of cathepsin B and even performed better on a memory test that involved drawing a geometric shape that the participants had been shown previously.
The researchers also found that humans who exercised consistently for four months showed better performance on complex recall tasks, such as drawing from memory, which was correlated with increased cathepsin B levels.
According to the National Institute on Aging, aerobic exercise is one way to stimulate the production of cathepsin B. These low impact forms of exercise may help stimulate the production of this protein:
- Walking outside or on a treadmill
- Tai Chi
- Strength training
- Swimming or water aerobics
The study shows that significant positive results occur with the maintenance of a long-term exercise regimen. While cathepsin B is just one of several factors that links exercise and brain function, it certainly adds to the value of exercising. It also reminds us that exercise is so important for our overall health and should remain a steady component in our lifestyle.
Always check with a medical professional before beginning any type of exercise program.