To keep your brain sharp and improve your memory, the usual advice still applies: eat well, lower your stress, get enough sleep and exercise.
But the last item on that list could be much more beneficial to brain function than you realize. New research indicates that regular exercise can have a positive effect on brain health; not only that, even a single session of exercise can prove beneficial for improving your memory.
“If people really did look at the evidence, they’d be pretty surprised at how potent exercise can be,” says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, associate professor and chairwoman with the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Liu-Ambrose, who began her career as a physiotherapist, studies exercise and its effect on the brain. She and her team have researched how exercise, even when begun later in life, can improve brain function. The team also has studied the impact of various types of exercise on the brain.
The team’s latest research found that strength training releases hormones in the brain that promote cell growth and cell survival, which are key to improving cognitive function – hormones that are different from those released during aerobic exercise. In fact, strength training might be more effective than aerobic training for improving brain functions such as memory.
At the very least, Liu-Ambrose says, the research results may be good news for people with limited mobility because modified strength-training programs can be created relatively easily for those with mobility issues. At best, the findings suggest that we are one step closer to the ideal of personalized exercise prescriptions that depend on a person’s abilities and goals.
The new findings regarding strength training are likely to be just the beginning. Until recently, Liu-Ambrose says, much of the research focused on aerobic exercise. That bias stemmed, in large part, from animal studies. Rats can be motivated to spin on a wheel for a reward; they’re less likely to want to do a few sets of bicep curls. But creative scientists are coming up with ways to construct animal models that mimic strength training (although, Liu-Ambrose admits, these models are not ideal).
These new models that mimic strength training, paired with improvements in brain-imaging technology, open doors for research into the impact of various types of exercise on brain function, along with timing and duration.
That’s why results of new research supporting the importance of exercise on brain function are released regularly. For example, the research released this past summer by the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University in the Netherlands, found that the timing of exercise might be as important as the type and duration of the exercise in its effect on memory function. In that study, researchers found that exercising four hours after a memory task helped test subjects retain information better than exercising immediately afterward or not exercising at all.
That “ideal window,” when exercise gives the most bang for the buck, is the subject in which we can expect to see more research. This concept can be critical for people interested in learning a new task or memorizing important information, as well as for people suffering from cognitive decline.
The following recommendations can help improve memory:
– Exercise regularly. You don’t have to train for a marathon to reap the benefits of exercise, Liu-Ambrose says. But the evidence supporting regular exercise – even if it’s a brisk, 20-minute walk every day – is indisputable.
– Take breaks. “You have limits; your brain has limits,” Liu-Ambrose says. Your ability to maintain a particular function decreases after a certain amount of time. There’s no sense in trying to stuff more information into your brain by locking yourself in your office and depriving yourself of equally essential activities such as exercise, socializing and spending time with your family.
– Take a nap. Sleep is another area of study that’s getting a lot of attention regarding memory enhancement. Sleep allows new memories or tasks that still are in your short-term memory bank to become integrated with your older memories and thus become more cemented in your brain.
But sleep has long been pushed aside in favour of cramming. (Think of those all-nighters from your university days.) And sleep often is the first thing to go when we’re trying to learn.
However, the latest research indicates that the benefits of sleep for memory are lost if sleep is delayed for too long after learning. So, try scheduling naps when learning to provide the best conditions for improving your memory.
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