Most of us are aware that exercise benefits the body, but research consistently shows that exercise can stave off memory loss, too. Just how exercise impacts memory seems to be influenced by a number of factors.
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Studies show that exercise alters the brain in ways that protect memory functioning. When you exercise, chemicals are released in the brain that keep it healthy. These chemicals preserve existing brain cells and encourage the growth of new blood vessels, keeping the brain sharp. In particular, exercise triggers the production of a chemical called BDNF, which converts stem cells into neurons and encourages brain growth, both of which improve cognitive function and memory.
Research has shown that the part of the brain associated with memory, the hippocampus, is bigger in those who exercise compared to those who don’t. Another study highlights that people who enjoy high fitness levels are 36% less likely to get dementia.
Exercise affects how the hippocampus uses glucose and fat stores as fuel. When glucose stores are low after exercise, the brain turns to fat stores for energy instead. This switchover of fuel sparks the release of the chemical BDNF, which enhances cognitive functioning. Exercise also helps to keep insulin levels on an even keel, which is vital since diabetes is associated with a 65% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Exercise also gets blood pumping around the body, especially aerobic exercise. Increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain promotes good cognitive health, while impaired blood flow to the brain can result in vascular dementia.
Keeping active also bolsters memory indirectly. Exercise reduces stress, anxiety and inflammation, and improves sleep quality, which all have a positive impact on cognitive functioning, including memory recall.
Best memory-boosting exercises
It’s not clear which exercises are the best for boosting memory skills, but researchers conclude that aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial. Any exercise that involves learning a technique, such as tai chi, also has its merits.
To gain the memory-enhancing benefits from exercise, researchers recommend that everyone should aim to participate in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise, at least three times per week. But, if you can’t manage this, studies show that even short bursts of activity, as little as 10 minutes at a time, can boost the part of the brain associated with memory. The key thing is to perform exercise regularly to reap the rewards, particularly when you consider that exercise can slow brain ageing down by as much as 10 years.
Exercise for everyone
Although we tend to think of memory decline as something that affects older people, it’s not just the elderly who stand to benefit from exercising for good brain health. Recent studies conclude that children who perform physical activities gain improved brain functioning, particularly with regards to concentration.
In particular, if you have just learned something new and want to commit it to memory, it appears that exercising four hours afterwards is the key to achieve this. Scientists are not certain why this is the case, but it seems that the release of chemicals called catecholamines, associated with memory consolidation, have a role to play. Interestingly, studies show that exercising immediately after learning something new doesn’t have the same memory-boosting impact as delayed exercising.
Either way, exercise has a powerful impact on both the mind and body, and could keep your memory in tip-top shape.