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Timing your workouts to supercharge your memory

exercise and memory

Anyone whose dealt with the nightmare that is “Finals week” knows the commonplace feelings of memory failing.  People try all sorts of things to improve their memory for these types of high pressure situations such as dramatic increases in caffeine intake, adderall abuse, or off-label use of desmopressin.  It’s very analogous to the person that wants to lose 20 lbs before a wedding, doesn’t really do anything to accomplish it and then in the month before they essentially starve themselves to make it work.

In both situations the person is going to experience diminished mental capacity and is very unlikely to have a good time. Coincidentally both situations have the same solution: exercise.  And I don’t mean “exercise” in the sense of doing some sort of mental exercise.  A regular exercise regimen with specific timing could actually benefit our memory capabilities.

In a recent study researchers found that exercise performed  after learning something improved memory retention and retrieval abilities.  Specifically these researcher found that aerobic exercise 4 hours after learning improved memory.  However, another study compared groups that performed High Intensity exercise at 20 minutes, 1 hour, and 2 hours after learning and found that the group that exercised immediately after acquiring some new knowledge had the highest rate of successful retrieval.

my personal experience with this

I’ve had the ability to experiment with these ideas for a while now.  Due to the 18 week structures of semesters I’ve also been somewhat forced to grant each experiment a lengthy trial time.  The four different approaches I’ve taken are: exercise immediately before class, exercise a few hours before class, exercise immediately after class, and exercise a few hours after class.

Exercising immediately after class resulted in better overall academic performance, while exercising immediately before was detrimental.

Exercising immediately after class resulted in better overall academic performance, while exercising immediately before was detrimental.

As you’d expect my results are similar to that of the research: exercising immediately after class produced the greatest level of memory consolidation, exercising a few hours after class came in second, and exercising a few hours before came in third.

What’s interesting is that exercising immediately prior to class didn’t just produce the worst results, it was pretty detrimental to my ability to learn.  This was really surprising because I would feel very energized in class and take quite detailed notes but I was not integrating the new information effectively.  Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any research showing similar results to these findings and it is quite possible that factors outside exercise timing may have been at play.  That being said I have since shuffled my schedule to allow for exercising immediately after my class and my level of memory consolidation has returned to it’s higher level.

Ensuring a stronger memory (mostly with common sense)

Timing your exercise to enhance your memory is only one tool at your disposal.  You can’t party all the time and expect to perform at your peak just because you hit some dumbbell curls after class (although one study did find that exercise does protect young brains against MDMA induced damage). Certain things need to be prioritized to truly optimize your memory.  Number one is always going to be sleep.  Sleep is going to be your number one tool in strengthening your brains capacity for everything.  Secondly, limit distractions.  We all think we can multitask and we can’t, we just don’t pay attention to anything well when we try to pay attention to too much.  When you know you’ll need to remember something then treat it as something so important that you should give it your sole focus.

applying this

If you’re a student then the methods in which you can apply these ideas are very straightforward: go to the gym after class, the sooner the better.  However this may not be entirely feasible for everyone out there.  Many of us have to squeeze in our workouts before the day begins or late after we’ve finished with work, classes, life stuff in general.  When this is the case a good approach would be to review what it is you need to integrate into your memory immediately before exercising.  And remember, best results are yielded from High Intensity exercise, walking on a treadmill for 3 minutes isn’t going to cut it!

At the end of the day you need to experiment with this.  This is just a blog article with some personal experiences tied to a few pieces of recent research, not exactly the perfect scientific standard.  But experimenting with this has given me a powerful tool to increase the consolidating and recalling abilities of my mind by simply making a conscious decision about when I exercise.  Try it out, the worst case is that you have a different result and then we can have a conversation.

 

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Habits and Supplements to Master Your Sleep

Sleep, the often sacrificed aspect of our training regimen. Sleep is hugely important to athletes: it’s a time when we recover and recharge. Additionally shorter periods of sleep are typically associated with increased levels of obesity in and adults. Honestly, it doesn’t take a thesis level article to explain to you why you should be getting quality sleep, you already know a lot of the benefits.

I have always enjoyed my sleep a little too much. I was your typical teenager that’d sleep as long as possible, the only grade schooler I knew that could sleep 12 straight hours, and even as an adult I tried to maintain 8-9 hours of sleep a night. The point is I liked to sleep A LOT and if I didn’t get a lot of it I didn’t feel very rested.

As you can imagine needing a lot of sleep requires being able to go to bed at a regular time, being able to fall asleep efficiently, and waking up well rested. In this article I’m going to share the habits and supplements I’ve been using to ensure quality rest.

Habits

In my article in Habits I listed out the four major antecedents to forming any new habit:

  1. Reward
  2. Consistency
  3. Behavioral Cues
  4. Simplicity

To effectively battle insomnia and ensure quality sleep we need to make going to sleep a habit that adheres to these four aspects. We can do this through the process of ritualization.

Firstly, pick something you can regularly do before bed that you find enjoyable and rewarding. It is extremely important that what you pick is extremely simple as this will ensure regular consistency.

For example; at 9:00 pm every night I put a kettle on the stove and make a cup of herbal tea for my wife and I. Since we regularly try to go to sleep by 10:30 pm this acts as a simple cue that we need to begin winding down: turning off TV, brushing teeth, read a book, etc.

Personally, I really enjoy herbal tea and have a few that I keep around that are quite relaxing. The tea in and of itself is a reward and a behavioral cue. It’s simplicity lends itself to being repeated nightly.

Rituals like this don’t work right from the onset. Typically it’s going to take some time to establish it before you can yield its benefits. But once it is in place it becomes a strong physical tool to alter your mental state towards preparing for sleep, which ultimately will lead to better and more consistent sleep.

Supplementation

Zinc, Magnesium, and Melatonin

I’ve had my fair share of bouts with insomnia. During college I was a little too familiar with pulling all nighters and eventually my body developed this nasty resistance towards wanting to fall asleep.

A few years out of college and into weightlifting the majority of nights spent tossing and turning seemed to have subsided. This was a huge upgrade, showing that a change in lifestyle was what was needed most, but I was still have trouble falling asleep quickly and staying asleep.

On nights that I could feel that sleep would not come easily I would take 3-5 mg of melatonin and this would help me get to sleep quickly, however it did not help me feel like I was getting quality sleep. Shortly after I met my wife she introduced the idea of supplementing with zinc and magnesium prior to sleep to more restful sleep.

Research has shown that zinc, magnesium, and melatonin cocktails can successfully aid insomniacs with getting to sleep quickly and actually resting during sleep.

While I don’t have a study on hand to back this; I believe that melatonin stimulates that body’s desire to sleep, however encourages more levels of stage 4, deep, sleep which is good but not wholly restful. The inclusion of zinc and magnesium is able to shift this stimulation somewhat to promote greater levels of stage 5, REM, sleep. REM sleep is typically associated with dreaming and one of the primary subjective changes people experience with including zinc and magnesium is a sudden increase in vividness and frequency of their dreams.

Personally I try to take the melatonin sparingly so I don’t develop a tolerance/dependence on exogenous melatonin. Additionally, I will take a week or two off of zinc after a while as regular zinc supplementation has been known to drain trace mineral reserves such as copper.

Glycine

Recently I’ve been experimenting with taking an amino acid supplement before bed: Glycine. Research has shown that taking 3 grams of glycine an hour before bed produces a positive subjective feeling upon waking.

In my own personal experience glycine appears to work almost as effectively as advertised (which is stellar in the supplement industry). I have noticed a clearer effect when I take closer to 5 grams but this could simply be due to my size. Also beaware that it took about 4 days before I noticed a regular effect.

The addition of glycine into my bedtime supplementation has dramatically increased my ability to wake up and get after it. It’s essentially taken that feeling of “oh, bed so comfy, just 5 more minutes” and has replaced it with a eagerness to start the day. Which is much more than I get out of the majority of supplements I have taken.

How do I take these?

The most effective method I’ve found for ingesting these supplements so far is to put all items in a shaker cup. Unfortunately I can only find zinc and magnesium in tablets that are somewhat resistant to dissolving in water so this takes a lot of forethought and planning.

Regularly I add 3-5 grams of glycine, 3 mg of melatonin (the tablets will dissolve in water), and propel for flavoring to a regular shaker cup. Drink this 30-60 minutes before sleep.

Additionally I will take 400 mg of Magnesiumand 30 mg of Zinc in tablet form when I drink the aforementioned cocktail. I have experimented with crushing the tablets and adding them to the shaker. Unfortunately these minerals take a very long time to dissolve in water and it’s much easier to leave them in tablet form.

In Summary

Sleep is important and sadly it seems to be the first thing high performing people are willing to sacrifice to get the job done. Sleep is not an inconvenient time waster, it is primary component of our daily recovery, both physical and mental, and deserves to be prioritized.

Regular oversleeping or insomnia are likely caused by people with irregular sleeping schedules (except for in cases diagnosed by a medical professional). Ritualization can help correct this and provide a structure for establishing a regular sleeping schedule.

Some supplements are worthwhile when trying to get the most out of sleep. Glycine, Zinc, and Magnesium are great supplements to take nightly before bed and sparingly including melatonin can help ensure falling asleep in a timely manner.