New study finds the best brain exercises for memory

  • Research has shown that exercise can have a positive impact on your memory and brain health.
  • A new study linked vigorous exercise to improved memory, planning and organization.
  • Data suggests that just 10 minutes a day can have a big impact.

Experts have known about the physical benefits of exercise for years, but research is ongoing into how exercise affects your mind. Now, a new study reveals the best exercise for brain health — and it can help sharpen everything from your memory to your ability to organize.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, tracked data from nearly 4,500 people in the UK who had 24-hour activity monitors strapped to their thighs for a week. Researchers analyzed how their activity level affected their short-term memory, problem-solving skills and ability to process things.

The study found that doing moderate and vigorous exercise and activities — even those done within 10 minutes — were linked to much higher cognition scores than people who spent most of their time sitting, sleeping or doing quiet activities. (Heavy exercise generally includes things like running, swimming, biking up an incline, and dancing; moderate exercise includes brisk walking and anything that gets your heart pumping.)

Specifically, the researchers found that people who did these workouts had better working memory (the small amount of information that can be held in your head and used when performing cognitive tasks) and that the greatest impact was on executive processes such as planning and organization.

On the other hand, people who spent more time sleeping, sitting, or moving just a little instead of doing moderate to vigorous exercise had a 1% to 2% drop in cognition.

“Efforts should be made to maintain, or reinforce, moderate and vigorous physical activity in place of other behaviors,” the researchers wrote in the conclusion.

But the study wasn’t perfect — it used previously collected cohort data, so the researchers didn’t know extensive details about the participants’ health or their long-term cognitive health. The findings “could simply be that individuals who exercise more have higher cognition on average,” said lead study author John Mitchell, a doctoral student at University College London’s Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health. But, he adds, the findings could also “imply that even minimal changes in our daily lives could have downstream implications for our cognition.”

So, why might there be a link between exercise and good memory? Here’s what you need to know.

Why could exercise sharpen your memory and thinking?

This isn’t the first study to find a link between exercise and improved cognition. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifically states online that physical activity can help improve your cognitive health, improve memory, emotional balance, and solve problems.

Regular exercise can also lower your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. A scientific analysis of 128,925 people published in the journal Preventive medicine in 2020 found that cognitive decline is nearly twice as likely in adults who are inactive compared to their more active counterparts.

But the “why” behind all this is “not entirely clear,” says Ryan Glatt, CPT, senior brain health coach and director of the FitBrain program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA. However, Glatt says previous research suggests that “it’s possible that different levels of activity could affect brain blood flow and cognition.” This means exercising at a harder clip can boost blood flow to your brain and improve your ability to think straight in the process.

“It may be related to several factors related to brain growth and skeletal muscle,” says Steven K. Malin, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “Often studies show that the more aerobically fit individuals are, the denser brain tissue is, suggesting better tissue connectivity and health.”

Exercise also activates skeletal muscles (the muscles that connect to your bones) that are thought to release hormones that communicate with your brain to influence the health and function of your neurons, i.e. cells that act as information messengers, says Malin. “This, in turn, could promote the growth and regeneration of brain cells that help with memory and cognition,” he says.

Currently, the CDC recommends that most adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

The best exercises for your memory

In general, the CDC suggests doing the following to squeeze more exercise into your life to improve your brain health:

  • Dance
  • Do squats or march in place while watching TV
  • Start a walking routine
  • Use the stairs
  • Walk your dog, if you have one (one study found that dog owners walk an average of 22 minutes more each day than non-dog owners)

However, the latest study suggests that more vigorous activities really are best for your brain. The study didn’t pinpoint which exercises are best in particular — “If we’re wearing an accelerometer, we don’t know what kinds of activities individuals are doing,” Glatt explains. However, it is essential to increase your heart rate.

That may include doing exercises such as:

  • HIIT workouts
  • Run
  • To jog
  • Swimming
  • Cycling on a slope
  • To dance

Malin’s advice: “Take breaks from sitting throughout the day by doing activity ‘snacks’.” That might mean doing jumping jacks for a minute or two, walking up stairs at a brisk pace, or doing air squats or push-ups to try for about six to 10 minutes of sedentary behavior per day. “Alternatively, it can be a long way to walk in for about 10 minutes,” he says.

Main photo of Korin Miller

Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamor and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives on the beach, and hopes to one day own a teacup pig and a taco truck.

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