• Interval training can help boost memory. (AAP)Source: AAP
Getting a sweat on can help your recall - as long as you time it right.
Evelyn Lewin

28 Jun 2016 - 11:05 AM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2016 - 11:14 AM

We all know exercise is good for both our physical and mental health. Now new research shows it also helps boost our memory.

The research, published in the journal Current Biology this June this, analysed 72 participants who each completed a 40-minute task.

Following the task, participants were divided into three groups.

Two groups were required to do 35 minutes of interval training exercises - one, immediately after the task; the other, four hours later. The last group didn’t exercise at all.

When tested on the material two days later, memory recall was best in the group who exercised four hours after the task.

This follows on from research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2012 that showed that participants who exercised after a task had better recall an hour later than those who didn’t work out.

Both studies show that exercise boosts memory, but why does that happen?

Train your brain

The 2012 study showed that exercise “significantly elevated” noradrenaline levels, a chemical messenger known to contribute to memory modulation.

Exercise physiologist Andrew Daubney says exercise also helps “clear the mind” by allowing you to shift your focus onto the physical activity.

Long-term, it can also protect the brain against age-related memory loss, due to its effect on hippocampus volume.

That notion is backed by research published in PNAS in 2011. It showed that exercise training increased hippocampus volume by 2 per cent, “effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by one to two years”.

While the 2012 study had participants exercising for six minutes, the more recent study asked participants to complete 35 minutes of interval training.

But how much exercise do we need to do after a task to improve our memory?

According to research he’s analysed, Daubney says you should aim for “20-60 minutes” of exercise to gain effect.

“However, from work we have done in the clinic, I suspect that if exercise intensity was more vigorous, then shorter durations [3-5 minutes] would also be beneficial.”

When should you exercise to gain maximal effect: Immediately after a learning task? Four hours later? Or, at another time point?

Daubney says the research on this is “scanty” and limited to mice trials. Although this new research analysed the effects on memory retention of exercising four hours after a task, Daubney believes the ideal time to exercise to gain maximum effect would be around 20 minutes after learning.

He says this may relate to the hormone IGF-1 which is released when exercising and promotes memory retention.

But if you can’t just grab your runners and head for a jog after every important meeting, don’t stress.

Sitting pretty

There are lots of other ways you can boost your memory that don’t involve leaving your desk.

A new study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology this June showed that taking notes is one such method.

The study analysed mock jurors’ ability to recall information after either taking notes, or not taking notes.

After taking notes, some participants were allowed to review them, while others were not. Even those who didn’t review their notes afterwards showed greater recall than those who didn’t jot anything down, thus demonstrating that the act of note-taking itself boosts memory.

Another way to boost your memory is to take a nap after a learning task, says clinical psychologist Dr Lara Winten. She says this is because we remember material better if we minimise the amount of learning we do before or after a specific task, an act known as “minimising interference”. Dr Winten says meditation after a task provides the same effect.

But if you must move from one learning task to another, she recommends experimenting to ascertain which tools most assist your own memory formation.

For example, repetitious writing-out of material can aid some people’s processing as it slows down our thinking while we write.”

Meanwhile, she says, others learn best by a practice referred to as “elaboration”. That is, associating the new material being learned with a “known and more easily activated memory network”. You can do this by relating the task to a personal experience you've had, or a topic you're more deeply familiar with.

But if you can exercise after an intensive task, you’ll reap the benefits of mental clarity and physical activity, while giving your memory an added boost.

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