A Little Exercise Can Give Your Memory a Big Boost

If you’re studying for a big test or preparing for a presentation, know this: yes, exercising can give you an energy and endorphin boost, on top of being great for your physical health, of course. But there’s another benefit researchers are just now discovering—regular high-intensity exercise can improve your memory.

In a study conducted by scientists at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, a group of healthy young adults exercised regularly. After only six weeks, the researchers saw an improvement in the participants’ high-interference memory, the type of memory that allows you to differentiate your car from another of the same make and model. Having good interference memory means you can successfully combine old information with newly acquired information and use it.

rewire pbs living exercise
Source: American Psychological Association

This suggests that doing rigorous exercise for only 20 minutes a day can have a pretty quick impact on your memory, even if you—and your brain—are young and healthy. Good news for those of us who are always backtracking to recover things we forgot.

The news is great for older adults, too. Regular exercise might be able to counteract the memory-depleting effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia down the road, the researchers believe. It might even have a more powerful effect than it does for young people, a hypothesis the scientists are testing. No matter how old you are, it seems your memory can benefit from a few laps around the block.

Stronger muscles, stronger brain

In the study, 95 young adults did six weeks of physical training, physical and cognitive training combined, or nothing at all. They took memory tests before and after the training regimen so scientists could compare the results. In the tests, participants had to pick out matching faces from a bunch of very similar faces, according to Medical News Today.

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Source: Timex study

The groups that did physical activity did 20-minute sessions of interval training. That’s when you intersperse intense exercise, like running fast, with more moderate exercise, like jogging or speed-walking.

Both groups that did the training experienced the improvement to their memories at about the same level. The group that did neither physical or mental training didn’t get a boost.

The people whose fitness improved the most also experienced the most increases in a brain-generated protein that promotes growth, function and survival of brain cells. This might mean that while you’re getting your body in shape, you’re beefing up your brainpower as well.

And it could explain why past research has shown a connection between exercise and better performance in school, lead study author Jennifer Heisz pointed out in a news release about the research.

If dreary weather or post-holiday slump has you feeling cloudy headed, getting into the groove of exercising every day might be just the boost your brain needs. And you’ll be doing your near- and far-future self a favor by improving your memory health.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Reach her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @katecmoritz.