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Even a Light Workout Can Improve Your Memory

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 4, 2023

Can’t remember where you left your car keys last night? A quick, 10-minute session of yoga or tai chi may kick your memory into gear.


That’s according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences conducted by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and Japan’s University of Tsukuba. 


Building stronger connections in the brain


Using high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques, researchers took images of people’s brains immediately after mild physical activity, and they found that the areas of the brain responsible for generating and keeping memories were more strongly connected than the period before the exercise.


The part of the brain that is largely responsible for creating new memories is called the hippocampus. It is a structure found deep in the brain that can be impacted by or injured by many different stimuli, from physical injury to psychiatric disorders. In cases of Alzheimer’s disease, this is often the part of the brain that begins to atrophy or function incorrectly.


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The connection researchers were looking at was between a part of the hippocampus and other areas of the brain that are known to process memories. The better the connectivity between the two areas, the better the memory recall was.


How this study is unique


Previous studies have shown that exercise can stimulate the creation of new cells in the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory, but that is something that is generally a longer-term benefit. The researchers in this study showed immediate memory benefits of something as simple as a leisurely 10-minute walking break during the workday. 


It is possible that the mild exercise is leading to the generation of new brain cells, but it is clear to researchers that even mild activity boosts the signals between the part of the brain responsible for creating memories and the parts responsible for processing and storing them.


Impacts of the study


The study shows that it does not take much to help the brain create, process, and store new memories. Huge numbers of people count their steps every day thanks to omnipresent smartwatches and fitness trackers, and it is easier than ever to time a 10-minute light exercise session. 


As people age, they become more fragile and prone to physical disabilities and injuries that can prevent intense workouts. However, this study shows that very light exercise can significantly improve a person’s ability to create new memories and retain them. 


The study could help inform the exercise needs of elderly people to help stave off what doctors call cognitive decline, which is defined as more frequent or worsening bouts of confusion or memory loss. Having good cognition, which is the ability to learn, remember, and then make judgment calls, leads to a much better quality of life as people age. The symptoms of cognitive decline are often the first indicators of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.


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Cognitive decline as a public health issue


The Centers for Disease Control have labeled cognitive decline as a public health issue because of the increased need for health and social services for people who experience cognitive decline. In a study conducted by the CDC, they found that nearly 23% of people who had self-reported cognitive decline lived alone. That is troublesome because people who are experiencing cognitive decline can have large lapses in memory that can lead to dangerous situations, such as leaving an oven or stove on for hours. The impact on judgment that cognitive decline has also makes people living with it more vulnerable because they can become more susceptible to scams or people finding ways to take advantage of them financially.


Also worrisome is the fact that less than half of the people in the CDC’s study, 45.3%, had talked with their healthcare professional about their memory lapses or bouts of confusion. It is important to have those conversations with a doctor so they can help determine ways to combat cognitive decline.


What comes next


The next steps for researchers from University of California Irvine and University of Tsukuba are to look at the impacts of long-term light exercise, which is done daily for several weeks or months, to see if such activity has a positive impact on the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory creation and memory retention. They hope to work with older people who are more at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia and prevent those outcomes from happening. 


Written by Sheena McFarland

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