I just read a really fascinating post on the New York Times’ Well blog. We’ve known for a long time that exercise has a whole host of good benefits, including benefits associated with memory. Two recent studies have delved even deeper into how this works.
How does exercise help memory?
In the blog post, New York Times journalist Gretchen Reynolds details the two new studies “ one conducted on humans and the other conducted on rats.
In the human study, elderly women who already had some mild cognitive impairment were split into three groups. One group lifted weights, the second group engaged in moderate aerobic exercise, and the third group did yoga-like activities.
The participants were tested at the beginning and end of the 6-month exercise period and the results were striking. First, bear in mind that, in general, we would expect elderly people who are already experiencing mental decline to continue down that path over time. Indeed, after 6 months, the yoga group (our control group) showed a mild decline in several aspects of verbal memory.
The weight-training and aerobic groups, by contrast, actually improved their performance on several tests (remember, this was 6 months later!). In particular, these groups were not losing as much of their older memories and they even became faster at some spatial memory tests involving memorizing the location of three items. In other words, the women were both better at making new memories and better at remembering / retrieving old ones!
Another group of researchers conducted a similar study, only this time rats were getting some cardio in or lifting weights. (The rats ran on wheels for the cardio exercise and, get this, for the weight lifting, the researchers tied little weights to the rats tails and had them climb tiny ladders!)
At the end of six weeks, the running rats showed increased levels of a brain protein that helps create new brain cells. The tail-weight-trainers had higher levels of a different protein that helps new neurons to survive.
How can I use this? Get up and MOVE!
Reading this study has made me want to exercise more¾and not even for the GMAT! I’d like to stave off mental decline in my old age. : )
The women in the study were performing fairly mild exercises only twice a week (remember, they were elderly), so we don’t suddenly have to become fitness fiends. We don’t know, of course, exactly how the study results might translate to younger people, but the general trend is clear: exercise can help us make and retain memories. That’s crucially important when studying for the GMAT¾every last bit will help!
Get a little bit of both weight-training and cardio in every week. You don’t have to become a gym rat (pun intended). It’s probably enough to engage in some moderate activity every few days. Also, look for ways to incorporate mild exercise into your daily routine. For example, when I go to the grocery store, I carry a basket around on my arm rather than push a cart (unless I really have to buy a lot). I’ll fill that basket right up to the brim¾often, I end up having to use both hands to continue carrying the thing. I figure that, every time I do that, it has to be worth at least 10 to 15 minutes of pumping iron!
Studying for the GMAT is tiring, so use this news as an excuse to take a brain break. Get up and walk around the block for 15 minutes, or turn on some music and dance, or run the vacuum cleaner (vigorously!). Then sit back down and enjoy the brain fruits of your physical labors.