Fitness tracking reveals task-specific associations between memory, mental health, and physical activity

Physical activity can benefit both physical and mental well-being. Different forms of exercise (e.g., aerobic versus anaerobic; running versus walking, swimming, or yoga; high-intensity interval training versus endurance workouts; etc.) impact physical fitness in different ways. For example, running may substantially impact leg and heart strength but only moderately impact arm strength. We hypothesized that the mental benefits of physical activity might be similarly differentiated. We focused specifically on how different intensities of physical activity might relate to different aspects of memory and mental health. To test our hypothesis, we collected (in aggregate) roughly a century’s worth of fitness data. We then asked participants to fill out surveys asking them to self-report on different aspects of their mental health. We also asked participants to engage in a battery of memory tasks that tested their short and long term episodic, semantic, and spatial memory performance. We found that participants with similar physical activity habits and fitness profiles tended to also exhibit similar mental health and task performance profiles. These effects were task-specific in that different physical activity patterns or fitness characteristics varied with different aspects of memory, on different tasks. Taken together, these findings provide foundational work for designing physical activity interventions that target specific components of cognitive performance and mental health by leveraging low-cost fitness tracking devices