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Keep Moving to Protect Your Memory and Cognitive Skills

The health benefits of being active, such as reducing stress, managing our weight, and reducing hypertension, cannot be overlooked. One benefit that is getting more attention is the role being physically active plays in helping protect both our memory and cognitive skills.

Exercise and Memory

High-intensity exercise can improve your memory. Credible research suggests that older adults who did short bursts of exercise (known as high-intensity interval training or HIIT) saw an improvement in their high-interference memory of up to 30 percent. This type of memory is used to distinguish between two similar objects – for example, our own car from a similar make and model in a parking lot.

If this isn’t enough reason to motivate you to get off the couch, there is a correlation between improvement in a person’s memory and in their fitness level. And don’t let the idea of HIIT discourage you! You can start off by changing your walking routine to one minute of speed walking, two minutes of regular walking, followed by one minute of speed walking.

Episodic Memory

Episodic memory, which allows you to remember things that happened in the past and is one of the first to suffer the impact of getting older, also benefits from exercise. Exercising three times a week for at least four months benefits this specific type of memory. Starting exercise sooner reaps bigger rewards when it comes to episodic memory and starting before you notice any decline is even better.

The studies also suggest that HIIT was not required to improve episodic memory – just walking did the trick.

If you are looking for something a little more vigorous than walking but not as intense as HIIT, you’re also in luck since other studies suggest that moderate intensity exercise also can benefit your memory as you age.

Working Memory

Another type of memory which can benefit from exercise is your working memory. This is the memory which gives you the ability to literally “hold” information while you do something else. Think of it as a temporary memory scratch pad.

A good example of how we use this memory is when we are adding up numbers and we remember how much to carry forward, or when we read a recipe and need to remember what to do with an ingredient after we read the recipe. Once we finish the addition or the recipe step, the information is no longer needed, and it simply fades away.

The best exercise for helping working memory may be a moderate intensity workout of 45 – 60 minutes, three or four times a week.

One thing to keep in mind is that the benefits of exercise for your memory only last if you keep exercising. In fact, it may even return to pre-exercise levels if you stop for too long. So, you need to keep at it to get the most benefit.

Exercise and Cognitive Skills

Besides memory, exercise can also help you keep your cognitive skills sharp. It may help improve reasoning, thinking and judgment skills and even delay the start of Alzheimer’s disease for those who may be at risk for developing it. Exercise may slow down the disease progression of those who already have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

The theory is that physical activity achieves this by increasing the amount of the chemicals in your brain that help protect it as well as by helping with blood circulation. It may help protect an area of your brains known as the hippocampus, which is viewed as the “seat of learning and memory.”

Being active may help you maintain more of your cognitive abilities even if you may already have biomarkers or other conditions linked to dementia. People who are active and move have better thinking skills than those that are sedentary (e.g., couch potatoes).

One rationale is that physical activity may help support the brain’s immune system which in turn may delay or alter memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise may help manage blood pressure, which may accelerate the mental decline that often leads to Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, exercising to help lower our blood pressure may help prevent mental decline and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Given that hypertension tends to increase – and cognitive functioning tends to decrease – as you get older, the relationship between the two and what you can do about it become quite important. The bottom line is that high blood pressure impacts your cognitive abilities because it damages your brains.

What is impressive is data that suggests that exercise may slow the rate of mental decline we experience as you age. If you are wondering exactly how much it can slow it down, it may be the equivalent of up to 10 years of aging! In other words, if you don’t exercise, your brain may age up to 10 years more than those that do exercise.

Other Things You Can Do

In addition to exercise, things that we can do to help protect our memory and cognitive skills as we age include:

  • Exercising your mind as well as your muscles. Anything that keeps your mind active and working will fit the bill. Find something mentally challenging and enjoyable. Try your hand at crosswords (or the latest online craze, Wordle); learn a language; take up a new hobby such as digital photography or needlecraft.
  • Reducing or stopping recreational marijuana use if you use it. Marijuana may age the brain by nearly three years (which is not what we need if we are trying to protect our memory and cognitive skills).
  • Being sure to keep up with your friends and family. Social interactions are especially important as you get older and having lively conversations and debates will help keep you on your game.

Don’t Forget Nutrition’s Important Role

In addition to exercising to help your memory and cognitive skills stay in shape, it’s equally important to make sure you’re giving your brain the nutrients it needs and in the right amounts. A pro-inflammatory diet that is full of foods that are high calorie, high in sugar, highly processed, and void of nutrients can undermine all your best efforts.

A good example of a healthy brain diet is one that is anti-inflammatory and includes a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein. One great food to consider is the avocado since this fruit is nutrient dense and has healthy fats.

It’s also better to try and prepare more meals at home rather than dining out since this gives you better control (and knowledge) of exactly what and how much you are eating.

Also be sure to monitor your magnesium levels. You want to stay in the “sweet spot” with this important mineral since having too much or too little has been linked to an increased risk of dementia.

A good way to check them is to get a comprehensive nutrient test – this way you can make sure your body is getting not only the right amount of magnesium but also all the other nutrients critical to good health.

Do you do any type of exercise to help keep your memory and cognitive skills sharp? If so, what are you doing? If not, do you think you will soon? How about eating to protect your brain? Do you ever prepare “brain food” at home? If so, what do you prepare? If not, do you think you will soon? Please join the conversation.

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The Author

Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs (, a national non-profit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is Minerals - The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy, available through Amazon, iTunes and bookstores.

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