Regular aerobic exercise can improve your memory. Your brain is your tool for remembering, so you have to make sure the brain has enough oxygen and other nutrients.
Daily physical activity is one way to increase blood flow to your brain.
It has been proven that building your aerobic capacity through aerobic activity like running, cycling, or walking increases oxygen not only to your brain but to all your other organs.
Furthermore, research has demonstrated that exercise leads to growth of new neurons in memory areas of the brain!
When your oxygen is low, your ability to concentrate is hurt. When you can't concentrate, you can't learn new information easily or recall information you studied in the past. Many studies have shown that physical activity increases the flow of oxygen to your brain.
As fitness expert Robert Sweetgall, who has walked over 70,000 miles in his lifetime, explains:
Exercise helps oxygenate (supply oxygen to) the brain. This supply makes it function better. Even walking 15 minutes a day will help you focus better.
If you don't exercise regularly, try starting with a simple cardio program at home. You might want to check out the 20-Minute Memory Solution exercise program that I personally use. It really works!
Research done in the last ten years shows that intense aerobic activity actually grows new brain cells (neurons) in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is one part of the brain responsible for - you guessed it - MEMORY.
A study by the Dr. Scott Small of the National Academy of Sciences showed that "a three-month program of vigorous aerobic exercise seemed to produce new neurons in this area, as well as improvements on tests of mental recall."
This study found a 30 percent increase in the number of brain cells in the human participants. For the study, the participants were exercising intensely one to two hours a day, four days a week, on a treadmill or stationary bicycle.
Want to help protect your brain against dementia? Another study found that the hippocampus of seniors who started a regular aerobic exercise program grew larger in just one year compared to other older individuals who followed a toning, stretching, and light weight-training program only.
Over the course of a year, those who did aerobic exercise enjoyed a 2% growth in their hippocampus, as measured by MRI scan. Those who did other types of exercise saw their hippocampus shrink by 2%!
Researchers conclude that not only does aerobic exercise actually enlarge memory areas in the brain, such exercise is also protective against memory loss.
In addition to increasing the flow of nutrients to the brain, exercise stimulates the production of a neurochemical called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This brain protein protects brain cells and encourages their growth.
Young or old, aerobic exercise is something you can do to grow neurons in the memory areas of your brain. It's also proven to have tremendous benefits for other reasons (increases lifespan and energy, fights disease, and so on). Aerobic exercise is a no-brainer!
Since this is a memory site and not a fitness site, I'm not going into every theory of physical fitness. I'm just going to tell you what I do, and then you can decide if that would work for you or if you need to find something else.
The main thing is getting some aerobic activity as many days of the week as possible. At least three days a week. Six days a week is probably even better.
I used to hate running. I always did, ever since 8th grade when my parents signed me up for the track team at school. I always came in last because I didn't practice like the other kids and because I have naturally low stamina.
But you know what? I run now, either outside or on a treadmill. I've gotten used to it, and it isn't that bad. Running is a very simple, no-fancy-equipment-needed way to get in my 20 minutes a day.
It makes a huge difference. If I stop running for a week or two, which sometimes happens, I start feeling like crud within just a few days. Face it - we were not made to be sedentary couch potatoes. We were meant to move our limbs and get the blood flowing.
The brain is highly sensitive to this. Just try an exercise program for six weeks or so and just see if you don't notice a tremendous difference in your energy level and the quickness of your mind.
Here's an excellent video by memory expert Luis Angel explaining more about how exercise boosts the production of BDNF in the brain and helps improve memory:
Can Running Improve Your Memory?
There are lots of other ways to exercise aerobically, of course. Riding a bike, playing racquetball or another intensive sport, even walking your dog - these are all great ways to get your heart rate up.
In fact, a study by the University of Missouri-Columbia found those who walked a dog for 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for about a year lost 14 pounds. "That's a better result than most of the nationally known weight-loss plans," as one of the researchers pointed out. So not only is walking good for your brain, it can be an effective means of weight control.
And by the way, if you work on a computer for hours a day like many of us do, consider building or buying a treadmill desk, as I have done. You won't get an aerobic benefit from it, but you will get a boost to memory, attention, and longevity.
For those who already do aerobic exercise regularly - Bravo!
I actually lift weights in addition to running. I find that when I stick to a reasonable weight routine, I have fewer aches and pains (especially lower back and neck), and I just feel better in general.
Plus the overall increase in strength just makes all kinds of every day tasks easier. However, I have not seen any evidence (yet) that lifting weights strengthens your memory.
Several years back there was a great article in Men's Fitness magazine that listed 44 benefits of eating right, lifting weights, and doing aerobic exercise.
Let me point out just one of the reasons:
12. You'll stay mentally sharp. In a study of older men and women, fit subjects scored higher on tests of reasoning, working memory and reaction time than sedentary subjects did. This may be because exercise improves blood supply to the brain.
If you are interested, there are many sites on the web where you can find a routine you like.
One of my favorites is the Body for Life program started by Bill Philips, a former bodybuilder and the founder of Experimental and Applied Sciences (EAS).
I've also had success with Beach Body's P90X and Mike Chang's Sixpack Shortcuts.
Some people bash Body for Life in favor of other programs, but I'm sorry, it works. I'm almost 40, and even though I don't do the program fanatically like some people, I'm still one of the strongest and most fit people around me.
So check out that program and any others, but the main point is START SOMETHING! At least something aerobic.
1. Lu, Chapman, et al. "Shorter Term Aerobic Exercise Improves Brain, Cognition, and Cardiovascular Fitness in Aging." Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, (November 12, 2014), 5:75. DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2013.00075
2. Researchers conclude from this study that even a short-term exercise program can help boost memory:
These data suggest that even shorter term aerobic exercise can facilitate neuroplasticity to reduce both the biological and cognitive consequences of aging to benefit brain health in sedentary adults.
3. Fenn, et al. "Poorer aerobic fitness relates to reduced integrity of multiple memory systems." Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, (2014), 14:1132-1141. DOI: 10.3758/s13415-014-0265-z
4. Erickson, Voss, Kramer, et al. "Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory." Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Jan. 31, 2011. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015950108
5. Erickson, Prakash, et al. "Aerobic fitness is associated with hippocampal volume in elderly humans." Hippocampus, 19: 1030-1039. October 2009. DOI: 10.1002/hipo.20547
6. Pereira, Small, et al. "An in vivo correlate of exercise-induced neurogenesis in the adult dentate gyrus." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 2007;104:5638-5643.
7. Winter, et al. "High impact running improves learning." Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 2007;87:597-609. DOI: 10.1016/j.nlm.2006.11.003
8. "Walk Off the Pounds with Your Dog." Associated Press, 10/21/2005 http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9773345/ns/health-fitness/t/walk-pounds-your-dog/
Last Updated: 06/11/2020
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