Improve Your Memory with Aerobic Exercise

Photo by Andrea Leopardi on Unsplash

I’m sure you know exercising is good for you, but did you know that you can actually improve your memory with cardio exercise? If you have ever searched for exercising plans (who didn’t at least once?), you encountered the terms cardio or aerobic exercise.

What is Aerobic Exercise?

Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, are physical exercises of low to medium intensity, that raise your heart rate to at least 50% of its maximum rate and are sustained by aerobic metabolism. The last part means that the body will use oxygen to convert carbohydrates into energy. If the exercises are too intense (like sprinting for example), the body will start to break down glucose without oxygen, because the oxygen supply is not enough to provide the needed amount of energy. Such activities are called anaerobic and are not the focus of this article.

Aerobic exercise usually involves large groups of muscles that are flexed at low intervals and over extended periods of time. The best examples of aerobic exercise are:

  • walking
  • running
  • cycling
  • swimming
  • rowing

There are many others (rope jumping or stair climbing for example), but I wanted to keep the list short and focused on the most commonly practiced ones.

Can You Actually Improve Your Memory with Aerobic Exercise?

There were multiple studies on rats showing that running on a wheel improves memory and overall brain function, but newer studies show that aerobic exercise help improve memory also for humans. A group of scientists from the University of Tsukuba, Japan, conducted a series of experiments in order to determine the impact of exercise on memory, especially on pattern separation (“which is the ability to discriminate among similar experiences, a fundamental component of episodic memory”).

The first experiment1)Kazuya Suwabe, Kyeongho Byun, Kazuki Hyodo, et al. – Rapid stimulation of human dentate gyrus function with acute mild exercise involved a group of young adults performing 10 minutes very light cardio exercise (30% VO2 peak). Using a high-resolution fMRI, they were able to observe an increase in functional connectivity between inside the hippocampus and concluded that “very light exercise rapidly enhances hippocampal memory function, possibly by increasing DG/CA3−neocortical functional connectivity”.

For the second experiment2)Kazuya Suwabe, Kazuki Hyodo, Kyeongho Byun, et al. – Acute Moderate Exercise Improves Mnemonic Discrimination in Young Adults, 21 healthy young adults performed 10 minutes of moderate exercise (50% VO2 peak) on a stationary bike. They showed increased pattern separation abilities, especially for highly similar objects.

There are many more experiments linking aerobic exercise to improved memory and better brain function. For example, a study measured a 20% increase in vocabulary learning after intense physical exercise3)Bernward Winter, Caterina Breitenstein, Frank C Mooren, et al. – High Impact Running Improves Learning.

Dr. Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University has been studying the brain’s ability to form and store long-term memories for many years. She has recently started to research the effects of aerobic exercise on learning and memory. You can watch her TED Talk here:

As you can see there are studies that concluded that even a single session of aerobic exercise will bring improvements in the overall brain functioning, and especially in the memory formation functions. Most of the studies though show that a lifestyle that incorporates regular cardio exercise brings more durable change and improvement to these functions. A study lead by scientists from the University of Illinois and Pittsburg focused preadolescent children (9- and 10-year-old)4)LauraChaddock, Kirk Erickson, Ruchika Shaurya, et al. – A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume, and memory performance in preadolescent children. They used magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the relation between fitness levels and hippocampal volume. The conclusion was that “children with higher levels of fitness have larger hippocampi”, they performed better on memory tests.

Aerobic Exercise and Brain Health

Aerobic exercise will increase the blood flow in your brain and will stimulate neurogenesis. They are a great tool to fight against degenerative diseases, and by that, I don’t mean they will help you cure dementia (or Alzheimer’s Disease) or even completely stop its evolution, but that they will delay it, slow its evolution, and keep your brain healthy as much as possible.

There are studies linking aerobic exercise to reducing symptoms in people with depression and anxiety disorders5)A. Kandola, G. Ashdown-Franks, B. Stubbs, D. P. J. Osborn, J. F. Hayesa – The association between cardiorespiratory fitness and the incidence of common mental health disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis.

Another study conducted by professors from Illinois University focused on the effects of aerobic exercise in aging adults. They analyzed 59 healthy but sedentary adults, aged 60 to 79, over a 6-month period. Half of them practiced aerobic exercise and the other half static stretching. The scientists used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the white and grey matter volume at the beginning and at the end of the study.  They concluded that “significant increases in brain volume, in both gray and white matter regions, were found as a function of fitness training for the older adults who participated in the aerobic fitness training”6)Stanley J. Colcombe, Kirk I. Erickson, et al. – Aerobic Exercise Training Increases Brain Volume in Aging Humans.

Duration

How long should you exercise throughout the week? The Department of Health and Human Services recommendation: “at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.” To sum it up, 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week would be the minimum recommended duration.

Conclusion

They say that “sitting is the new smoking”, as being sedentary brings a whole array of health issues. We have evolved to stand, walk, and run over a very long period of time, and modern society got us to couch potatoes in just a few decades. Many of us work at desks, in front of computers for many hours every day, sitting, and that has a toll on our health. Physical exercise is known to improve our health and mood. New studies have shown that our brains, especially the memory forming functions, benefit a lot from regular cardio exercise. We need to make the effort and include cardio exercise in our daily routine, for healthier brain, mind, and body.

References   [ + ]

1. Kazuya Suwabe, Kyeongho Byun, Kazuki Hyodo, et al. – Rapid stimulation of human dentate gyrus function with acute mild exercise
2. Kazuya Suwabe, Kazuki Hyodo, Kyeongho Byun, et al. – Acute Moderate Exercise Improves Mnemonic Discrimination in Young Adults
3. Bernward Winter, Caterina Breitenstein, Frank C Mooren, et al. – High Impact Running Improves Learning
4. LauraChaddock, Kirk Erickson, Ruchika Shaurya, et al. – A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume, and memory performance in preadolescent children
5. A. Kandola, G. Ashdown-Franks, B. Stubbs, D. P. J. Osborn, J. F. Hayesa – The association between cardiorespiratory fitness and the incidence of common mental health disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis
6. Stanley J. Colcombe, Kirk I. Erickson, et al. – Aerobic Exercise Training Increases Brain Volume in Aging Humans

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