We know exercise is good for the body. It turns out, it is also really good for the brain, especially the memory. Research shows it’s not just older people who experience the benefits; exercise benefits memory in people of all ages.
How Exercise Helps Memory
Exercise offers direct and indirect support for the brain. Harvard Medical School notes exercise provides direct benefits by supporting healthy blood sugar, reducing inflammation and encouraging the growth of new blood vessels in the brain. Indirect support comes in the form of more positive moods, less stress, and better sleep.
Studies in recent years have shown the effect on memory is direct.
Research completed by McMaster University and published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience reports short bursts of high-intensity exercise produced significant improvements in young adults. The research team divided up 95 study participants into 3 groups:
- one group exercised
- one group exercised and did memory training
- the other group did nothing as the control group
The first two groups showed improvement in high-interference memory and increases in proteins that support the health and well-being of the brain.
Exercise Physically Alters the Brain…in a Good Way!
Earlier research completed by University of British Columbia researchers and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed exercise changes the physical structure of the brain.
Researchers found aerobic exercise lead to significant improvements in overall hippocampal volumes. In the brain, the hippocampus is responsible for memory, mood and learning. As the researchers noted, previous research they had done showed aerobic exercise improved memory in healthy women and those with mild impairment.
This study is significant as the participants were women ages 70-80. They also had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Plus, their exercise consisted of a brisk one-hour walk, two times a week for six months.
A 2013 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience produced similar results in older adults ages 57-75. That study found aerobic activity performed three times a week for an hour over three months improved memory, recall and increased hippocampal volumes. In this study, the adults selected for the study lived what was termed a sedentary lifestyle. This suggests improvements change be experienced regardless of past activity levels!
These benefits are not limited to older adults either. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reported children 9-11 years-old had more aerobic activity and muscle fitness performed better academically. An earlier study by Dartmouth College and reported in Psychology Today found exercise improved memory and helped children suffering from ADHD.
What’s the Best Type of Exercise to Improve Memory?
Research done so far suggests brisk walking for 2 -3 hours a few times a week may be enough. Of course, more may better, but the best exercise for any individual depends on the health of the individual and should be developed in consultation with a primary healthcare provider.
- Heisz JJ1, et al. The Effects of Physical Exercise and Cognitive Training on Memory and Neurotrophic Factors. J Cogn Neurosci. 2017 Nov;29(11):1895-1907. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01164. Epub 2017 Jul 12. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn_a_01164
- Brinke LF, Bolandzadeh N, Nagamatsu LS, et al. Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomised controlled trial. Br J Sports Med 2015;49:248-254. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4508129/
- Chapman SB, et al. Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging. Front Aging Neurosci. 2013 Nov 12;5:75. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2013.00075. eCollection 2013. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnagi.2013.00075/full
- Kao SC, et al. Muscular and Aerobic Fitness, Working Memory, and Academic Achievement in Children. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2017 Mar;49(3):500-508. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001132. http://journals.lww.com