Health factors such as an active lifestyle and aerobic fitness have long been linked to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other adverse health outcomes. Only more recently have researchers begun to investigate the relationship between aerobic fitness and memory function. Based on recent findings in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience showing that the hippocampus might be especially sensitive to the effects of exercise and fitness, the current study assessed hippocampal-dependent relational memory and non-hippocampal-dependent item memory in young adults across a range of aerobic fitness levels. Aerobic fitness was assessed using a graded exercise test to measure oxygen consumption during maximal exercise (VO2max), and relational and item memory were assessed using behavioral and eye movement measures. Behavioral results indicated that aerobic fitness was positively correlated with relational memory performance but not item memory performance, suggesting that the beneficial effects of aerobic fitness selectively affect hippocampal function and not that of the surrounding medial temporal lobe cortex. Eye movement results further supported the specificity of this fitness effect to hippocampal function, in that aerobic fitness predicted disproportionate preferential viewing of previously studied relational associations but not of previously viewed items. Potential mechanisms underlying this pattern of results, including neurogenesis, are discussed.

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