- Research has found exercise can have a positive impact on your memory and brain health.
- A new study linked vigorous exercise to improved memory, planning, and organization.
- Data suggests just 10 minutes a day can have a big impact.
Experts have known for years about the physical benefits of exercise, but research has been ongoing into how working out can impact your mind. Now, a new study reveals the best exercise for brain health—and it can help sharpen everything from your memory to your ability to get organized.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, tracked data from nearly 4,500 people in the UK who had activity monitors strapped to their thighs for 24 hours a day over the course of a week. Researchers analyzed how their activity levels impacted their short-term memory, problem-solving skills, and ability to process things.
The study found that doing moderate and vigorous exercise and activities—even those that were done in under 10 minutes—were linked to much higher cognition scores than people who spent most of their time sitting, sleeping, or doing gentle activities. (Vigorous exercise generally includes things like running, swimming, biking up an incline, and dancing; moderate exercise includes brisk walking and anything that gets your heart beating faster.)
The researchers specifically found that people who did these workouts had better working memory (the small amount of information that can be held in your mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks) and that the biggest impact was on executive processes like planning and organization.
On the flip side: People who spent more time sleeping, sitting, or only moved a little in place of doing moderate to vigorous exercise had a 1% to 2% drop in cognition.
“Efforts should be made to preserve moderate and vigorous physical activity time, or reinforce it in place of other behaviors,” the researchers wrote in the conclusion.
But the study wasn’t perfect—it used previously collected cohort data, so the researchers didn’t know extensive details of the participants’ health or their long-term cognitive health. The findings “may simply be that those individuals who move more tend to have higher cognition on average,” says lead study author John Mitchell, a doctoral training student in the Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health at University College London. But, he adds, the findings could also “imply that even minimal changes to our daily lives can have downstream consequences for our cognition.”
So, why might there be a link between exercise and a good memory? Here’s what you need to know.
Why might exercise sharpen your memory and thinking?
This isn’t the first study to find a link between exercise and enhanced cognition. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifically states online that physical activity can help improve your cognitive health, improving memory, emotional balance, and problem-solving.
Working out regularly can also lower your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. One scientific analysis of 128,925 people published in the journal Preventive Medicine in 2020 found that cognitive decline is almost twice as likely in adults who are inactive vs. their more active counterparts.
But, the “why” behind it all is “not entirely clear,” says Ryan Glatt, C.P.T., senior brain health coach and director of the FitBrain Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA. However, Glatt says, previous research suggests that “it is possible that different levels of activity may affect brain blood flow and cognition.” Meaning, exercising at a harder clip can stimulate blood flow to your brain and enhance your ability to think well in the process.
“It could relate to a variety of factors related to brain growth and skeletal muscle,” says Steven K. Malin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “Often, studies show the more aerobically fit individuals are, the more dense brain tissue is, suggesting better connectivity of tissue and health.”
Exercise also activates skeletal muscles (the muscles that connect to your bones) that are thought to release hormones that communicate with your brain to influence the health and function of your neurons, i.e. cells that act as information messengers, Malin says. “This could, in turn, promote growth and regeneration of brain cells that assist with memory and cognition,” he says.
Currently, the CDC recommends that most adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise.
The best exercises for your memory
Overall, the CDC suggests doing the following to squeeze more exercise into your life to enhance your brain health:
- Do squats or march in place while watching TV
- Start a walking routine
- Use the stairs
- Walk your dog, if you have one (one study found that dog owners walk, on average, 22 minutes more every day than people who don’t own dogs)
However, the latest study suggests that more vigorous activities are really what’s best for your brain. The study didn’t pinpoint which exercises, in particular, are best—“when wearing an accelerometer, we do not know what sorts of activities individuals are doing,” Glatt points out. However, getting your heart rate up is key.
That can include doing exercises like:
- HIIT workouts
- Biking on an incline
Malin’s advice: “Take breaks in sitting throughout the day by doing activity ‘snacks.’” That could mean doing a minute or two of jumping jacks, climbing stairs at a brisk pace, or doing air squats or push-ups to try to replace about six to 10 minutes of sedentary behavior a day. “Alternatively, trying to get walks in for about 10 minutes could go a long way,” he says.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.
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