To remember something new: Exercise!

But the trick is to do it four hours after learning something novel
Jul 29, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
spin class

Want to cement new memories, like those gleaned while cramming for a test? Then head to spin class or do some other activity that revs up the heart rate. But the trick: Wait four hours before getting started.

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Here’s another reason to get off the couch and start working up a sweat. Time the exercise right and you could boost your ability to remember something new. That’s the finding of a new study.

But it all comes down to timing. To lock up the new information, start burning those calories roughly four hours after you took in the new information. That’s according to researchers at an institute on brain, cognition and behavior. It’s at Radboud University’s Medical Center, in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Eelco van Dongen and his colleagues shared their new findings in the June 16 Current Biology.

This precisely timed memory trick comes from tests with 72 people. Each learned the location of 90 objects on a computer screen. Afterward, some of the recruits watched relaxing nature videos. Others worked up a sweat on stationary bikes, alternating between hard and easy pedaling for 35 minutes. Their workouts came either soon after the cram session or four hours later.

Two days later they were tested again.  Those who remembered the objects’ sites best were the people who had waited four hours after their learning session before pedaling away. Among those who remembered sites correctly, the four-hour delay before biking also led to more consistent activity in an area important for memory. It’s known as the hippocampus. The consistent activity here suggests that the memories had been strong, the scientists say.

Van Dongen’s team does not yet know how exercise works its memory magic. They do, however, have a guess. Aerobic exercise sparks the creation of several important chemicals in the brain. One is a protein known as BDNF. The other is dopamine (DO-puh-meen). It can help relay messages between nerve cells. These two molecules may help solidify memories by rewiring links between brain cells, the researchers suspect.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

aerobic exercise     Typically this includes periods of swimming, running, jumping, or stair climbing. This exercise gets its name from making the heart and lungs work to not only build muscle but also to improve the heart and respiratory system.

behavior    The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

calorie    The amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. It is typically used as a measurement of the energy contained in some defined amount of food.

cognition    The mental processes of thought, remembering, learning information and interpreting those data that the senses send to the brain.

cram        To pack something so tightly and full that there is no room for anything else. It is also a colloquial term for studying hard right before some test.

dopamine    A neurotransmitter, this chemical helps transmit signals in the brain.

hippocampus    A seahorse-shaped region of the brain. It is thought to be the center of emotion, memory and the involuntary nervous system.

NGSS: 

  • MS-LS1-8
  • MS-ETS1-4

Citation

E. van Dongen et al. Physical exercise performed four hours after learning improves memory retention and increases hippocampal pattern similarity during retrieval. Current Biology. Published online June 16, 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.071.