Aerobic Exercise Can Boost Your Episodic Memory, According to New Research

Photo: Getty Images/Aleksandar Nakic
Exercise isn't just for the body; it's also for the mind. Research has long shown that breaking a sweat increases blood flow in brain regions like the hippocampus, which plays a key role in stress regulation, learning, and memory. But aerobic exercise, in particular, improves episodic memory, or memory concerning personal events and experiences from the past, according to a new meta-analysis published in the journal Medical Communications. And luckily, there are countless ways to take advantage of this brain-forward physical activity.

Researchers sought to find a non-pharmaceutical approach to improving episodic memory in late adulthood—and while their meta-analysis, which looked at 36 studies totaling 2,750 participant, was in no way conclusive, the study authors found that aerobic exercise influences episodic memory positively.

Experts In This Article

Fortunately for anyone excited about these findings, it's simple to start incorporating aerobics into your everyday sweat routine, says Cat Kom, CEO and founder of Studio SWEAT onDemand. "Aerobic exercise means you’re moving your body, breathing faster, increasing your blood flow, and getting your heart rate up around 50 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR)," she says. "This is an activity that you can maintain for more extended periods of time." (Think: jogging, swimming, or indoor cycling.)

Aerobic exercise is the opposite of anaerobic exercise, which is when you’re working in an oxygen deficit, meaning your body can power your effort with oxygen intake alone and has to switch over to rely on stored energy fuel reserves instead. "Anaerobic exercise typically involves shorter, more intense activities that have you working at over 80 percent or 90 percent of your MHR. True anaerobic activity can typically only be sustained for short bursts under 60 seconds. If you’ve ever done a workout where during parts you were mouth-only breathing and fighting to catch your breath, you know what this feels like," says Kom. Anaerobic activities include high-intensity interval training (HIIT), sprinting, or power-lifting.

Both types of exercise have a place in a well-rounded movement routine, but for the sake of episodic memory, aerobic exercise reigns supreme. And speaking of the benefits of long, sustainable movement patterns, Kom is quick to point out that better memory is just one of aerobic exercise's crown jewels. Aerobic exercise also produces feel-good endorphins, safeguards your immune system, reduces high blood pressure, and more. Ready to get in on these benefits for yourself? Below, Kom offers up an aerobic-forward interval training workout, and a daily walking regimen to help you start making aerobic strides. (Bonus: You need zero equipment.)

Kom's 30-minute, bodyweight-only aerobic interval training workout

Complete each exercise for 30 seconds in a three-minute round. Rest for 30 to 60 seconds between each round. Try this workout three times a week to start, incorporating strength training on alternating days.

1. Jumping jacks: Come to stand with your feet together and you arms by your sides. Jump your legs out as you bring your arms up and over your head so your body's in an X shape. Bring your legs and arms back together and repeat until time runs out.

2. Burpees: From standing, lower into a squat. Bring your hands down to the floor and jump back into a plank. From this position, complete a push-up (option to drop down to your knees). Jump your feet back forward into your squat, then jump back up stand up.  To modify, step your feet forward and back one at a time instead of jumping in and out of your planks, and simply press through your heels to come to standing.

3. Squat jumps: Bring your feet hip-width apart and squat down, bringing your hands in front of your chest. Explode upwards into the air, straightening your legs and swinging your arms along your sides. Land softly back in a squat and repeat.

4. Skate jumps: Stand with your feet together. Pour your weight into your left foot and spring your right foot out the right, landing with knee bent and left foot up in the air, then push off right foot to jump sideways and land on left—swing arms toward landing leg for momentum. Continue jumping back and forth until the clock runs out.

5. Plank jacks: Come to plank. Draw belly button toward spine and hop your feet outside of your hips, doing your best to keep your hips level as you do. Hop your legs back together and continue for 30 seconds.

6. High knees: Come to standing. Bring your right leg up so that it's parallel to your hip bone. Lower it back down and quickly repeat with the left. Pick up the pace without breaking down your form.

Kom's weekly walking schedule that combines anaerobic and aerobic activity

"Walking is a great, low-impact cardio workout you can literally do anywhere and it's for all fitness levels," says Kom. "Below is a seven-day walking regimen you can add to your fitness routine. Gauge the intensity level of this workout on a scale of one to ten RPE (rate of perceived exertion):

  • 0  to 1: Very light—feels like nothing at all
  • 2 to 3: Light —feels like you can do activity for hours and maintain a full conversation
  • 4 to 5: Moderate to light work—feels like you can maintain for hours, can say full sentences
  • 6 to 7: Moderate to hard—feels like you can maintain the effort for an hour or two; you're breathing heavily, but can still say a full sentence
  • 8 to 9: Hard to very hard—work is uncomfortable
  • 10: Very, very hard—maximum work, can only maintain this effort for a few seconds

Day 1: Low-intensity steady state (LISS) walk—20 minutes

Moderate effort (four to five RPE) on a flat road

As you progress:

  • Add 5-plus minutes each week.
  • Once you can walk for an hour straight, pick up the pace.

Day 2: Speed-interval walking—23 minutes

  1. Three minute walk, four to five RPE
  2. 30 second speed walk, eight to nine RPE
  3. One minute fast walk, six to seven RPE

Repeat five times

As you progress:

  • Add one minute to interval one
  • Add 30 seconds to interval two
  • Add 30 seconds to interval three

Day 3: Hill intervals (for treadmill or if you have access to a steep hill)

  1. Two minute flat walk at a moderate pace, four to five RPE
  2. Two minute walk uphill at hard pace, six to seven RPE

Repeat five times

As you progress:

  • Add time to flat or downhill walk by one or more minutes.
  • Add intensity of hill by one or two on the incline

Day 4: Rest

Rest! Yes, rest. Rest is an important component of fitness. You can do an active rest by doing some light yoga, stretching or foam rolling," says Kom.

Day 5: LISS

Repeat day one. 

Day 6: Speed interval walking

Repeat day two.

Day 7: Hill intervals

Repeat day three. 

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