How many times have you put something down, maybe your car keys, and later can’t remember where you left it? Or heard someone’s name and soon forgot? What if there was a way you can make yourself remember? Perhaps give your memory a boost. Exercise might just be that way. Research indicates that you can indeed improve your memory with exercise.
What is memory?
Memory is the process of taking in information, storing and processing it. And then later recalling it. Most of what we think of memory is the storing of facts—a person’s name, something we read or what we learned at school. But memory is much broader than that. It’s also sensory. You might be able to identify a rose without seeing it because you remember the smell. Or recognize someone from their voice.
Scientists divide memory into three or more categories and within those categories may be further sub-categories. In general, memory can be sensory, such as remembering the sound of a particular type of bird. Short-term memory, which lasts less than a minute, is involved in remembering a phone number until you write it down. And long-term memory, helps you remember events in your past or things such as how to drive.
It’s unknown what the actual capacity of memory is, although it’s not believed to be limitless. And with age, our ability to remember slows down. Of course, forgetting is normal and happens everyday in everyone. But with age, there are physical changes that occur in the brain. The brain gets smaller. Neurons shrink and the creation of new neurons slows down. Levels of neurotransmitters and their receptors also decrease. But not all the changes in memory with age are necessarily age-related.
Long-term Effects of Exercise on Memory
Your memory is influenced by a number of behaviours, such as sleep quality, nutrition, brain challenges and even exercise. Unfortunately, many people reduce their exercise as they get older, particularly the type that gets your heart and breathing rates faster.
However, people who exercise are less likely to get mild cognitive impairment. Mild cognitive impairment is the stage between the natural effects of ageing on the brain and dementia. Also, people who exercise generally perform better on memory tests than non-exercisers. Exercise can even improve brain function in people with mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
The intensity of activity may also be important. For example, light to moderate activity was associated with better episodic memory—the recollection of past experiences. Yet high intensity activity was associated with better spatial memory—knowing the location of things such as where you left your car keys. However, not all studies are consistent. A randomized study of 12 weeks found that only high intensity interval training resulted in improvements in memory in older adults, but not moderate exercise. While another study did find moderate exercise training for one year in older adults increased spatial memory.
Acute Effects of Exercise on Memory
But you don’t have to wait months or years to see changes in your memory. Most research has looked into the effects of exercise on memory even after one session. While you may not notice changes in fitness after a single bout of exercise, you can in your brain.
After one session of exercise, learning and memory improve. And it can happen even with a session as short as two minutes of vigorous exercise. Exercise can also improve your ability to learn and remember new skills. Even one week later, retention of new skills was higher in those who exercised.
And it’s possible the timing of when you exercise may be important for certain types of memory. Long-term memory was enhanced when exercise was performed before learning. However, another study found exercise was effective at improving memory whether it was done before or after a learning task. A third study found exercise after learning was slightly better than exercise before learning.
How Exercise Works
Exercise is believed improve memory by two ways: indirectly and directly. Indirectly, exercise improves the quality of your sleep. It also improves your mood and reduces stress and anxiety. All of which make it easier to learn and remember things.
There are also direct biological ways in which exercise is believed to improve memory. One way is by increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Low levels of which are associated with increased chances for dementia. Exercise has also been shown to increase the creation of neurotransmitters and brain volume, specifically increasing the volume of the hippocampus which is the major brain centre for learning and memory. These changes are supported by studies using MRI, which indicate higher activity in the memory function areas of the brain.
So next time you find yourself forgetting something, try going for a brisk walk or other exercise. Or better yet, exercise on most days to keep your memory in top shape.
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