- Research has found that exercise can have a positive impact on memory and brain health.
- A new study linked vigorous exercise with better memory, planning and organization.
- The data suggests that just 10 minutes a day can have a big impact.
Experts have known about the physical benefits of exercise for years, but research has been done on how exercise can affect your mind. Now a new study reveals the best exercise for brain health and can help sharpen everything from your memory to your ability to organize.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, tracked data from nearly 4,500 people in the UK who had activity trackers strapped to their thighs 24 hours a day over the course of a week. The researchers looked at how their activity levels affected their short-term memory, their problem-solving skills, and their ability to process things.
The study found that exercise and moderate to vigorous activities, even those that took less than 10 minutes, were associated with much higher cognitive scores than people who spent most of their time sitting, sleeping, or doing light activities. (Vigorous exercise generally includes things like running, swimming, biking down a hill, and dancing; moderate exercise includes brisk walking and anything that makes your heart beat faster.)
Specifically, the researchers found that people who did these exercises had better working memory (the small amount of information that can be held in the mind and used in the performance of cognitive tasks) and that the greatest impact was on executive processes. such as planning and organization.
On the other hand, people who spent more time sleeping, sitting, or just moving around a little rather than doing moderate to vigorous exercise had a 1% to 2% drop in cognition.
“Efforts should be made to preserve time for moderate and vigorous physical activity, or reinforce it in lieu of other behaviors,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.
But the study wasn’t perfect: It used previously collected cohort data, so the researchers didn’t know many details about the participants’ health or their long-term cognitive health. The findings “may simply be that people who move more tend to have higher cognition on average,” says study lead author John Mitchell, a doctoral student at University College’s Institute for Sport, Exercise and Health. London. But, he adds, the findings could also “imply that even minute changes in our daily lives may 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 memory and thinking?
This isn’t the first study to find a link between exercise and improved 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.
Exercising regularly can also reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. A 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 compared to their more active counterparts.
But the “why” behind all of this “isn’t entirely clear,” says Ryan Glatt, CPT, senior brain health coach and director of the FitBrain Program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA. However, Glatt says, previous research suggests that “it is possible that different levels of activity may affect cerebral blood flow and cognition.” Meaning, exercising at a more intense pace can stimulate blood flow to your brain and improve your ability to think well in the process.
“It could be related to a variety of factors related to brain and skeletal muscle growth,” says Steven K. Malin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “Studies often show that the more aerobically fit people are, the denser the brain tissue, suggesting better tissue connectivity and health.”
Exercise also activates skeletal muscles (the muscles that connect to bones) which are thought to release hormones that communicate with the brain to influence the health and function of neurons, i.e. cells that act as messengers. of information, says Malin. “This could, in turn, promote the growth and regeneration of brain cells that help with memory and cognition,” she says.
The CDC currently recommends that most adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise.
The best exercises for your memory
In general, the CDC suggests doing the following to include more exercise in your life and improve your brain health:
- Squat or march in the same spot while you watch TV.
- Start a walking routine
- take the stairs
- Walk your dog, if you have one (one study found that dog owners walk, on average, 22 minutes longer every day than people without dogs)
However, the latest study suggests that more vigorous activities are actually the best for your brain. The study didn’t identify which exercises, in particular, are best: “When we use an accelerometer, we don’t know what kinds of activities people are doing,” Glatt says. However, getting your heart rate up is key.
That can include doing exercises like:
- HIIT workouts
- In a hurry
- To run
- Bicycling on a slope
Malin’s advice: “Take sitting breaks throughout the day by ‘snacking’ activities.” 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 in walks for about 10 minutes could be very helpful,” she says.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work featured 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 one day own a cup of tea and a taco truck.
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