We all struggle with our memories. They are much less permanent, and much more susceptible to distortion, than is subjectively obvious to us. Memory was, during many periods of ancient history, considered humanity’s greatest asset and was cultivated in the same way that we now build our muscles. In fact, the majority of the Western oral tradition was preserved through the centuries thanks to mnemonic memorization techniques mastered by scholars. But these days, we’re lucky if we consistently remember where we put our wallets. Thankfully, you don’t have to construct elaborate memory palaces or take expensive and scientifically specious nutropic supplements to improve your recall. You just have to exercise.
Dr. David Marchant, a researcher at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, recently presented research at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology in Cardiff that suggests that exercise may play an instrumental role in the development and maintenance of a healthy memory.
Dr. Marchant ran an experiment to test this hypothesis. He took two groups of generally healthy people who led active lifestyles, and presented them with lists of words they had to memorize and then later recall. They had to remember the words either before or after exercising, or before or after a rest period. The exercise was half an hour of cycling.
When the participants were asked to recall their words right after learning them, the group that did so who had exercised just prior to memorization had much better recall than everyone else. Similarly, when the participants were asked to recall the words after a thirty-minute gap after memorizing them, the people who had exercised either before or after being presented with the words had the best results. Indeed, the group with the best recall were the people who were given the words, exercised, and then recalled them.
“Our research suggests that an acute bout of aerobic exercise improves your short-term memory,” said Dr. Marchant. “Exercise before learning benefited immediate recall. But when people had to wait to recall the words, they performed best when they exercised after learning the lists. This improved memory didn’t come at the expense of making more mistakes during remembering. … Our findings are consistent with the idea that physical arousal improves memory, and those who need to learn information may benefit from taking part in exercise.”
So if you need to cram for a big test or just need another reason to work out, some time in the gym will do your body good. And your mind.