Exercise Can Improve Your Memory – and HIIT Workouts Are Especially Effective

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Most of us have experienced the link between mental health and exercise, whether your burst of feel-good endorphins is coming from a 45-minute HIIT workout or a walk around the block. Exercise can quickly improve your mood and also help you combat the effects of chronic mental health issues (although it’s definitely not a cure or a replacement for professional treatment or medication). Research also suggests that exercise is associated with lower risk of long-term brain health problems, including dementia and Alzheimer’s. So it’s fair to ask, what else can exercise do for our brains? Recent research is looking at the correlation between exercise and memory, and there’s a few interesting new revelations to know.

Exercise can impact your memory in the short term – as in, a single workout can help improve your memory – and in the long term, with exercise potentially providing some protection against future memory problems as you age. But as we know, different types of workouts affect your brain in different ways. You probably feel much different mentally after a 30-minute run than after a 30-minute yoga practice. Could exercise and memory work the same way? In other words, could different types of exercise affect your memory in different ways?

A recent study from Dartmouth, published in August in the journal Nature, asked exactly that question.

In the study, researchers looked at a year of Fitbit data from 113 participants. Each participant completed a series of immediate and delayed memory tests, including remembering random lists of words (free recall), the narrative of a short video (naturalistic recall), words in a foreign language, and the positions of different shapes (spatial learning). Then they looked for patterns between performance on the memory tests and participants’ exercise patterns, including length, intensity, and frequency of workouts.

In general, the researchers found that active people had better memories overall than people who tended to be more sedentary, but the data revealed more than that. Recent high-intensity exercise, for example, was correlated with good performance on the spatial-learning task (remembering the positions of shapes on a screen). “Low-to-moderate-intensity” cardio activity, like going for a walk, was associated with improved naturalistic recall (remembering a narrative of events). Interestingly, people who performed better on the foreign-language test “tended to be less active,” the report added, while participants who did well on free recall and naturalistic recall were more active.

The results of the new study support previous research on exercise and memory while providing a next step in an interesting direction. “Just as strength training may be customized to target a specific muscle group, or to improve performance on a specific physical task,” the researchers wrote, “similar principles might also be applied to target specific improvements in cognitive fitness and mental health.”

The researchers noted that the study only establishes correlation, not causation. In other words, they couldn’t be sure that exercise was causing the effects on memory or whether “people who tend to engage in similar forms of physical activity also happen to exhibit similar memory and/or mental health profiles,” though they pointed out that previous research “provides some insight into potential causal effects.” At 113 participants, the study was also relatively small.

So what’s next? The researchers hope to get started on controlled experiments to explore exactly why specific types of workouts seem to affect specific types of memory, they told The New York Times. Who knows – maybe in the future, we’ll tailor our workout routines to improve certain parts of our memory.

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