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.