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Discover the science of how exercise boosts your brain
Before you conquer that big presentation, carve out a few minutes to exercise.
Exercising anywhere from 20 minutes to about an hour before a mentally demanding task might help you remember important information you need to succeed, suggests a new study from Michigan State University.
“There’s a growing body of data that shows the more physical activity you engage in, the better long-term memory you have,” says lead study author Matthew Pontifex, Ph.D.
To see how a sweat session could impact learning and memory within one day, Pontifex and his team had 92 adults memorise a list of word associations.
After 12 hours, the study participants were tested on how many word associations they remembered from that morning.
The results, he says, were surprising. “If you spent all day on the couch or all day physically active, it didn’t make a difference,” he said.
But people who exercised in the hour prior to testing performed better than others, regardless of their age.
Even a leisurely walk around the block was enough for some participants to boost their memory.
Exercise may increase the availability of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in brain regions critical for long-term memory, prior research suggests.
But not all sweat sessions boost memory, the researchers found.
People who exercised in the one to two hours after learning new information, 10 to 11 hours before the test, actually performed worse than other study subjects.
“There’s something about exercising just after you learn something that makes it harder to remember,” Pontifex says.
The researchers aren’t sure why, but they have an idea: “The simplest explanation is that exercise helps stimulate the brain,” he says. “If you don’t exercise after learning something, you’re allowing those memories to consolidate and then they become stored.”
Give your brain that shot of stimulation just before you need to recall something instead.
“This relates to the idea that exercise is medicine,” says Pontifex. “Our study is showing you when to take that medicine.”