Exercise & Memory: how movement helps to clear the fog
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
Do you ever feel like you have foggy memory, or do you struggle to retain information?
Today, we shift our attention to memory and, to a lesser degree, focus, and how exercise can be leveraged to facilitate powerful and long-lasting improvements to our ability to perform both of these.
Let's start with memory, shall we. To understand memory we first need to gain a grasp on the area of the brain that is primarily involved.
A bit of Brain Stuff
They key player in the brain that is involved with memory is a structure called the Hippocampus. The name Hippocampus comes from the Greek word for Seahorse - checks out, right?
This adorable little brain-fish is vitally important to the functioning of our lives.
Without it, we wouldn't be ourselves.
It is not only the key player in memory formation - that's us learning and remembering new facts and events that occur - but it also defines our own personal histories. Think about it, if we can't form memories related to what we've done, what we've learned, or the events in our lives, then we cease to exist as the person that we are.
But, that's not all, it is a key driver of our ability to imagine things. Our ability to imagine future events, both playfully and earnestly. Our imagination is derived from our previous experiences - so no Hippocampus, no imagination. Pretty simple.
It also allows us to form associations between things that we experience in the world - past, present and future.
The Hippocampus is the prime-mover of memory formation, but it isn't the memory hard drive. Once memories are formed, they are stored temporarily in the hippocampus (for an undetermined length of time), after which they are stored as long-term memories in the Cortex.
What happens when our Hippocampus isn't healthy?
A robust and healthy Hippocampus should be what we are all striving towards, particularly when we know what occurs on the flip-side.
No doubt we would all be familiar with the memory-related ailments, Dementia and Alzheimer's. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that most people would know somebody - perhaps an older relative - that has or had been afflicted with either disease.
I certainly fit into this category, and believe me, it doesn't look like a nice way to go. Both diseases, in effect, start to break down the Hippocampus and its related structures. This makes it increasingly difficult to form new memories or retain new information, until this ability is lost indefinitely.
But, thankfully, there is a low/no cost intervention that can safeguard against, or at the very least slow the progression of neuro-degeneration of our Hippocampi.
Yep, you guessed it - it's Exercise
How exercise improves our memory
I've repeatedly harped on about the wide-spanning and universal benefits of exercise, and, while doing so, I have quite often referenced our brain's 'happy hormones'. You would've heard of them before - these are our friends Dopamine, Serotonin and Noradrenaline, which all get released when we exercise.
These three molecules are, technically speaking, the only 3 things that you enjoy.
But now, in the context of memory, I am going to throw another molecule into the mix: It is called Brain-derived Neutrophic Factor (BDNF).
BDNF is not necessarily a happiness or motivation-driver like the others. Its main role is that it stimulates the creation of new brain cells and, for some reason or another, it just loves the Hippocampus.
So as we exercise, the flow of events would be something like this:
We exercise: typically 30+ minutes. Most of the studies are done using aerobic exercise (i.e. running, cycling, rowing, etc.)
A cascading release of molecules & hormones (happy & otherwise) are released into our brain and blood stream
The presence of Dopamine, Serotonin and Noradrenalin promotes: feelings of happiness, motivation and energy
Increased blood flow to the brain promotes: see point 3; improvements in concentration & focus
The BDNF travels to our hippocampus, among other areas, and begins to stimulate the creation of new brain cells
As you can see, not only are we deriving short-term, immediate benefits from exercise, such as improved mood and energy, we are also safeguarding our brain against diseases such as Dementia and Alzheimer's.
For those who have genetic predisposition for one of these diseases (perhaps an older family member was afflicted), then this information is vital. Our bodies and brains tend to degradate as we age. For people with Dementia & Alzheimer's, the degradation in the Hippocampus is prompted and accelerated.
If we start with a healthy, robust Hippocampus, like those that are found in people who exercise regularly, then there is a LOT more degradation to the hippocampus and associated structures that needs to occur before our memory begins to falter.
I understand that committing to a lifetime of regular exercise is perhaps a bit too big of an ask on the back of a 3 minute health blog, but how about this: This week - try exercising for 30 minutes in the morning before you begin work on 2-3 days out of the week. Jot down notes on how you feel in the hours post-exercise, then compare this to how you feel on the days that you don't exercise.
Take stock, and find out what works best for you.