The Effect of Physical Exercise on Memory: A Deep Dive into the Science

The Effect of Physical Exercise on Memory: A Deep Dive into the Science

The relationship between physical exercise and cognitive function has intrigued scientists, healthcare professionals, and the general public alike for decades. One aspect of cognitive function that has garnered special attention is memory. This article aims to shed light on the impact of physical exercise on memory, drawing on a plethora of scientific studies and authoritative sources.

Expanding on The Basics of Memory

Understanding memory’s fundamental nature is an essential first step before diving into the relationship between physical exercise and memory improvement. Let’s delve deeper into the three primary types of memory:

Short-Term Memory

What Is It?

Short-term memory is often considered the brain’s “post-it note.” It allows you to temporarily hold and manipulate information. Think of short-term memory as the information you keep in your mind while dialing a phone number you just looked up.

How It Works

Information enters short-term memory through sensory input, such as vision or hearing. This data can be stored for approximately 20-30 seconds. One of the classic theories about the capacity of short-term memory is George Miller’s “Magic Number 7,” which suggests that the average number of objects an individual can hold in their working memory is about seven.

Relation to Physical Exercise

Physical exercise has been shown to have a short-term beneficial effect on cognitive tasks that depend on short-term memory. Even a single session of moderate exercise can enhance our ability to absorb and retain this kind of information.

Long-Term Memory

What Is It?

Long-term memory is the more permanent storage system in your brain, holding everything from your name and basic knowledge of the world, to complex skills and experiences. Long-term memories can last from a few days to a lifetime.

How It Works

Memories are usually transferred from short-term to long-term memory through a process called consolidation, which involves repetition and meaningful association. The hippocampus plays a significant role in this process.

Relation to Physical Exercise

Several studies suggest that physical exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, has a positive impact on the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in transferring information from short-term to long-term memory. This implies that exercise may aid in the consolidation of long-term memories.

Working Memory

What Is It?

Working memory is an extension of short-term memory. It allows you to hold and manipulate multiple pieces of transitory information simultaneously. It’s what you use when following multi-step directions or solving a mental math problem.

How It Works

Working memory is regulated by the prefrontal cortex and involves both the temporary holding and the manipulation of information.

Relation to Physical Exercise

Physical exercise has been shown to improve working memory significantly. In particular, studies involving school-aged children show that regular physical activity can improve academic performance, with working memory being one of the most notably enhanced cognitive functions.

Understanding the basic types of memory helps us better appreciate the comprehensive benefits of physical exercise on cognitive function. From improving short-term memory recall to aiding the consolidation process that strengthens long-term memory, and even boosting the multifaceted capabilities of working memory, physical exercise is a powerful tool for enhancing memory at every level.

Incorporating this knowledge, individuals can tailor their exercise routines to target specific cognitive improvements, reinforcing the notion that what is good for the body is also, incontrovertibly, good for the mind.

Source: Memory Systems of the Brain: A Brief History and Current Perspective

How Physical Exercise Impacts Memory

Improves Blood Flow to the Brain

Studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, enhancing cognitive function. A study by the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

Stress Reduction

Exercise also helps to reduce stress by reducing levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Stress has a direct negative impact on memory, and by controlling stress, exercise inadvertently benefits memory.

Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis

Physical activity has been shown to facilitate neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form new neural connections, and neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons. A Harvard Medical School study highlighted the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates neurogenesis, during exercise.

Hormonal Effects

Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, often known as ‘feel-good’ hormones. These chemicals improve mood and sleep, both of which have been linked to better memory retention.

Types of Exercises and Their Specific Effects on Memory

  1. Aerobic Exercise: As noted, aerobic exercises like jogging, swimming, and cycling boost blood flow and are generally associated with improvements in memory and overall cognitive function.
  2. Strength Training: Although traditionally linked to muscle building, strength training also appears to have cognitive benefits, including enhanced working memory.
  3. Mind-Body Practices: Activities like yoga and tai chi, which combine physical activity with relaxation and mindfulness, have also been found to improve memory.

Practical Recommendations

  1. Consistency Over Intensity: Moderate exercise for at least 150 minutes per week is recommended for optimal cognitive benefits, as per CDC guidelines.
  2. Diverse Routine: Incorporating various forms of exercise may yield the best results for memory enhancement.
  3. Consult a Healthcare Provider: Before beginning any new exercise regimen, especially for those with existing medical conditions, consult a healthcare provider for tailored advice.


The relationship between physical exercise and memory is backed by an extensive body of scientific research. Exercise does more than just keep us physically fit; it also holds significant benefits for our cognitive health, particularly our memory. With increasing age and the rise in cognitive decline disorders, understanding the impact of physical exercise on memory becomes even more crucial.

For those looking to not just remember where they left their keys but also potentially stave off the cognitive decline that comes with aging, the answer could be as simple as lacing up those running shoes.


  • “Memory Systems of the Brain: A Brief History and Current Perspective”, Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Link
  • “Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory”, University of British Columbia, Link
  • “Stress Hormones and Memory: A Meta-Analysis”, American Psychological Association, Link
  • “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills”, Harvard Medical School, Link
  • “Sleep and Memory”, PubMed, Link
  • “Resistance Training and Cognitive Function”, PLOS ONE, Link
  • “The acute effects of yoga on cognitive measures”, Science Direct, Link
  • “How much physical activity do adults need?”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Link

Note: Always consult with a healthcare provider for medical advice and treatment.

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