Everyone knows exercise is good for you. Even a little does a lot. But while it’s easy to see the physical improvements, you may be shocked to learn there are many mental improvements that come with increased movement. Here’s a list of ways exercise affects your memory.
Exercise increases oxygen intake in the brain
Not only is the brain the seat of awareness, it’s also the control center for the whole rest of the body. People tend to forget (no pun intended) that their brain has physical needs like any other organ — oxygen, blood, etc. That’s where even a little bit of exercise can get you some results. Simply learning to breathe deeply and calmly is enough to increase oxygen intake in the brain, which powers the whole system. So, a good workout will not only increase your lung capacity and regulate your insulin levels, it will also supercharge your brain capacity so you can go on to do mental things.
Exercise strengthens neural connections
Studies have shown that a form of physical exercise that also incorporates a mental challenge — say, ballroom dancing or a team sport — does more for the brain than either plain physical exercise or plain mental exercise (such as completing puzzles). While your imagination may be boundless, brains are pretty much locked into a finite system. Although your brain does grow rapidly in your early years, by the time you reach young adulthood you’ve pretty much finished the physical construction (as in, brain cells). Everything you do after that is simply connecting and reconnecting your neurons to each other to make new memories and associations. You have one set of connecting blocks to play with. If you lose some of them, you can’t go to the store and buy more. That’s why it’s vital to keep the ones you have going for as long as you can, and exercise is the key to that.
Exercise helps your brain relax
It goes without saying that mood affects brain, but brain also affects mood. Regular exercise, even in small amounts, can make you sleep better and cope with less stress and anxiety, both of which relax your brain so it can do more important things. The less your brain has to worry about, the more new learning it can devote itself to. And while it won’t remove the stresses in and of themselves, exercise as part of a self-care program can definitely make a difference in how you react to things, and how they in turn react to you.
Exercise increases the size of your hippocampus
The hippocampus is the part of your brain that controls not only your long-term memory, but also your “semantic” processes, such as emotions, senses, and so on. Studies have found that exercise literally increasesthe size of your hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for transferring short-term memories into long-term memories. You literally can’t form new memories without the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a tiny part of your brain, but it carries a lot of responsibility, so the more you can give it physically, the more it will give you back mentally.
Exercise boosts “interference memory”
The good news is that exercise can help improve several types of memory. This is vital because diagnoses of dementia are on the rise worldwide. It’s not only because of an aging population; it’s also because of a less active population. We already talked about the hippocampus and long-term memory, but exercise also helps with “interference memory” which makes it possible to link old memories to new ones. For example, interference memory allows you to be able to recognize a person you haven’t seen in years, or distinguish between two similar car models.
Exercise is the one thing you can do for yourself to help your brain stay active in a world that’s trying actively to sabotage you–whether it’s overindulgent food or environmental chemicals or sedentary lifestyle, while using such things is not intrinsically bad for you, they represent a kind of shortcut that prevents you from achieving your own success. Food is good and necessary; too much is not. Rest is good, but again, too much is not. There’s nothing wrong with using the cheap and easy route, but just be aware that it’s not designed with your brain in mind. Moderation is the key.
Top all of this off with the fact that we are inventing newer, faster, and bigger challenges to our brains every single day. Twenty years ago the Internet hardly existed outside of college and government facilities. In two generations we have gone from a newspaper reading world to a factoid reading one (including, ironically, this list). We spend more time with smaller bits of information. Our brain is not getting the exercise it needs. But it can’t improve without the physical exercise to power it. Only then do we have even a hope of growing both physically and mentally in this remarkable future world.