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Can Exercise Improve Memory?

Can Exercise Improve Memory?

Reading Time: 5 minutes


DATE: 2024-05-06

Exercise is a way to improve our physical health. Some people work out to lose weight, for instance. They want to manage or avoid obesity-related diseases. Exercise helps them achieve this goal. Others want to lower their blood pressure or cholesterol. Or they engage in regular exercise to reduce muscle pain or stiffness. But exercise offers mental health benefits as well. Is better memory one of its effects?

If you’re concerned about memory loss or have trouble recalling things, you may be wondering if exercise can make memory retrieval easier. (Can working out help you remember where you put your keys?) We’ll answer this by looking at how exercise affects working memory. But first, it’s helpful to understand the concept of cognition and how physical activity impacts it. 

Cognition: What It Is and How It Works

Cognition refers to our many mental processes. We rely on cognition to learn, think, problem-solve, and communicate. We also use these brain-based processes to help us remember things. Without them, we can’t recall concepts, experiences, or facts. These skills make up our executive function. They’re also a marker of brain health.

If we have higher levels of brain health, we can perform executive functions with relative ease. We can learn new things fairly quickly. We’re able to solve problems with just a little bit of thought. Conversely, someone with cognitive impairment may have trouble with some or all of these tasks.

Many factors can affect a person’s cognition. A disease affecting brain health can result in reduced cognitive function. This includes conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. So too can brain trauma or injury.

Some people have limited cognition due to drug or alcohol use. (We’ve all heard about how drugs kill brain cells.) Cognitive health also naturally declines with age.

Impact of Exercise on Cognitive Function

One way to protect or enhance cognitive function is with exercise. Studies have found that physical activity changes brain structure. (1) We grow new connections in the brain when we work out. It also impacts brain function. Together, this positively affects our cognitive processes. It also improves our mental well-being. 

Exercise further supports brain health by protecting our central nervous system. It can help prevent neurodegenerative disorders. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia all fall into this category. This is important because dementia is the seventh leading cause of death globally according to the World Health Organization. (2) It’s also one of the top causes of disability in older adults.

It doesn’t take lengthy exercise sessions to gain cognitive benefits either. A review of research found that short sessions were most effective for improving cognition in adults with cognitive impairments. Just 20 minutes is enough to do the trick. (3)

Can Exercise Improve Memory?

Some studies have looked specifically at the impact of exercise on memory. Many have found promising results. Exercise can positively impact both our short- and long-term memory. This gives us just one more reason to work out!

For example, one study found that both chronic and acute exercise help improve memory function in young and middle-aged adults. (4) Chronic exercise refers to repeated bouts of physical activity. Acute exercise refers to single exercise sessions.

Another piece of research involved subjects who took 15-minute walks before a learning task. These walks were moderate-intensity. These individuals’ long-term episodic memory improved. (Episodic memory refers to memories of past experiences.) (5)

The opposite also appears to be true. If you don’t engage in enough physical activity, memory can decline. According to one study, almost 9% of active adults report cognitive decline. However, this rate increases to 15.7% for adults with inactive lifestyles. (6)

Best Types of Physical Exercise for Memory Performance

Certain forms of exercise provide different effects. If we want to improve cardiovascular endurance, lengthy aerobic exercise sessions are critical. If we want to build muscle, strength training is a must. What are the best types of exercise to boost memory or combat mild cognitive impairment?

One study found that aerobic exercise was best for improving memory. But coordination and resistance exercises also provided memory benefits. This study was conducted on subjects with Parkinson’s disease. As this disease progresses, memory can worsen. So too can other cognitive functions.

In a different study, resistance exercise was determined the best for memory. It also found that multicomponent exercise was optimal for preventing cognitive decline overall. This research involved subjects with mild cognitive impairment or dementia. (7)

Another exercise option? Yoga. Some studies report that yoga can improve memory by reducing stress. (8) Other research credits it with reduced distractions and better concentration. Tai chi is another form of exercise with memory benefits. (9)

In the end, there is no clear-cut best form of exercise for better memory. So, a training program that includes a variety of exercise types will likely provide the greatest effects. Do cardio, strength training, and balance or coordination exercises. All have the ability to help improve your memory.

Exercise Guidelines for Better Memory

Yes, acute or single exercise sessions can improve memory. But regular exercise provides more health benefits. Follow the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans when designing your exercise program. These guidelines state:

  • Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. If you engage in vigorous exercise, get 75 minutes weekly or more.

  • Engage in at least 2 strength training sessions weekly. Target each major muscle group in these sessions.

  • Older adults should also engage in balance training. (10)

Other Strategies for Improved Memory

Of course, exercise isn’t the only way to boost memory. Here are other options to try as well:

  • Brain exercises. Doing regular brain exercises helps improve brain function. Memory games and crosswords are two options. Strategy-based video games are another. The more you work your brain, the better its continued function.

  • Meditation. Research has found that meditation can improve working memory. It’s also good for recognition memory. Effects were noted after 8 weeks of practice. (11)

  • Play a sport. Sports require certain skills. Studies have found that acquiring these skills provides cognitive benefits. That makes this type of activity good for brain health. This is in addition to sports’ physical and social benefits. (12)

  • Get adequate sleep. Do you have a hard time remembering things when you’re tired? You’re not alone. Thinking skills decline when sleep is lacking. Make 7-9 hours nightly your optimal goal.

  • Listen to music. Music can affect our energy and mood. It can also improve semantic memory retrieval according to research. Semantic memory involves the recall of words, numbers, or concepts. This type of memory is critical for language processing. (13)

Help Others Improve Their Memory as a Brain Fitness Coach

Some people use exercise and other strategies to boost their own memory. Others make a living out of using them as a Brain Fitness Coach.

This type of coach spends their days helping clients improve their cognitive function. For some clients, their goal may be to perform better on a memory test. Others may want to increase their creativity. Or they want to process thoughts with greater speed. A Brain Fitness Coach can help with all of these goals.

Does this sound like a good fit for you? ISSA offers Brain Fitness Coach certification. This course provides several effective strategies for improving brain function. You also learn additional ways to boost memory retention, combat stress-related cognitive decline, and more.

Featured Course

ISSA | Brain Fitness Coach


  1. Mandolesi, L., Polverino, A., Montuori, S., Foti, F., Ferraioli, G., Sorrentino, P., & Sorrentino, G. (2018). Effects of physical exercise on cognitive functioning and wellbeing: Biological and psychological benefits. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00509

  2. World Health Organization: WHO & World Health Organization: WHO. (2023, March 15). Dementia. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia

  3. Sanders, L., Hortobágyi, T., La Bastide‐van Gemert, S., Van Der Zee, E. A., & Van Heuvelen, M. J. G. (2019). Dose-response relationship between exercise and cognitive function in older adults with and without cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS One, 14(1), e0210036. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210036

  4. Loprinzi, P. D., Frith, E., Edwards, M. K., Sng, E., & Ashpole, N. M. (2017). The Effects of Exercise on Memory Function among Young to Middle-Aged Adults: Systematic Review and Recommendations for Future Research. American Journal of Health Promotion, 32(3), 691–704. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117117737409

  5. Sng, E., Frith, E., & Loprinzi, P. D. (2017). Temporal effects of acute walking exercise on learning and memory function. American Journal of Health Promotion, 32(7), 1518–1525. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117117749476

  6. Omura, J. D., Brown, D. R., McGuire, L. C., Taylor, C. A., Fulton, J. E., & Carlson, S. A. (2020). Cross-sectional association between physical activity level and subjective cognitive decline among US adults aged ≥45 years, 2015. Preventive Medicine (1972. Print), 141, 106279. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106279

  7. Stuckenschneider, T., Askew, C. D., Menêses, A. L., Baake, R., Weber, J., & Schneider, S. (2019). The Effect of Different Exercise Modes on Domain-Specific Cognitive Function in Patients Suffering from Parkinson’s Disease: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Parkinson’s Disease (Print), 9(1), 73–95. https://doi.org/10.3233/jpd-181484

  8. Mitra, S., Mitra, M., Saha, M., & Nandi, D. K. (2020, May 1). Beneficial effects of yoga on memory and cognition associated to stress.

  9. P, S. J. P., Manik, K. A., & Sudhir, P. (2018). Role of yoga in attention, concentration, and memory of medical students. National Journal of Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 8(9), 1526. https://doi.org/10.5455/njppp.2018.8.0723521082018

  10. Alex M. Azar II, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Olson, R. D., Piercy, K. L., Troiano, R. P., Ballard, R. M., Fulton, J. E., Galuska, D. A., Pfohl, S. Y., Vaux-Bjerke, A., Quam, J. B., George, S. M., Sprow, K., Carlson, S. A., Hyde, E. T., & Olscamp, K. (2018). Physical activity guidelines for Americans. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2nd ed.). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf

  11. Basso, J. C., McHale, A. L., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural Brain Research, 356, 208–220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2018.08.023

  12. Tomporowski, P. D., & Pesce, C. (2019). Exercise, sports, and performance arts benefit cognition via a common process. Psychological Bulletin, 145(9), 929–951. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000200

  13. Eskine, K. E., Anderson, A. E., Sullivan, M., & Golob, E. J. (2018). Effects of music listening on creative cognition and semantic memory retrieval. Psychology of Music, 48(4), 513–528. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735618810792

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