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4 Simple Rules to Shape Up Your Memory

The latest research shows that all of us can pump up our brainpower by exercising regularly

En español l Rarely do you find neuroscientists, psychologists and physicians agreeing unequivocally on anything. But here's an exception: They all say that exercise is hands down the single best thing you can do for your brain.

"If we had a pill that could do what exercise does, its sales would put Viagra's to shame," says Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and author of A Long Bright Future.

Smiling couple jogging on path, Exercise helps brain health

Stay fit to keep your brain healthy. — VStock LLC/Tanya Constantine/Tetra images RF/Getty Images

Aerobic exercise "keeps cognitive abilities sharp and slashes your lifetime risk of Alzheimer's in half," says John Medina, an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of Brain Rules.

How is this possible? Scientists think exercise boosts the flow of blood to certain parts of the brain, spurring the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a brain chemical scientists have dubbed Miracle-Gro for the mind. BDNF stimulates the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the area involved in memory, learning and the ability to plan and make decisions. At the same time, the substance repairs cell damage and strengthens synapses, or the connections between brain cells.

Exercise also dials down stress, reduces the risk of stroke, helps control blood sugar and reduces the chances of falling by improving balance and coordination.

So if you're worried that your memory is fading as fast as your tennis game, it's time to get moving. For the greatest brain benefit, follow these four simple rules.

1: Start now

It's never too late to start exercising for brain health, says Laura DeFina, M.D., medical director of research at the Cooper Institute and lead author of the study. "People always say, 'I'm 55 and I've never exercised. Does starting now really make a difference?' I tell them this: 'The answer is simple — yes, it absolutely matters.' "

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In a pivotal study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researchers found that seniors 60- to 79-years-old who completed a six-month program of walking briskly on a regular basis showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus, as well as an increase in levels of BDNF comparable to those found in people almost two years younger. (The hippocampus typically shrinks by 0.5 percent each year, starting in some people as early as their 40s.) Two control groups in the study — one did stretching and toning exercises, another did nothing — showed no brain changes at all.

"This was the first time that we were able to demonstrate that you can actually increase the size of the hippocampus," says Kirk Erickson, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the study's lead authors.

"It was as if we'd rolled back the clock," he adds. "It proves that exercising even in late adulthood, even if you've not been active before, is not futile. People need to know that dementia is not inevitable."


  • If your doctor says you're healthy enough for exercise, find something that feels good to you. "The best exercise to do is the one you'll keep doing," says Carstensen. "It should be something you love, not something you dread."

  • Recruit a friend or coworker to take a fitness class with you. Being with others can motivate you to keep going.

  • Lay out your workout clothes the night before so you see them first thing in the morning. Athletes call this a "prime" — your personal signal to get moving.

  • Plug in your iPod. Studies show that those who work out while listening to music exercise harder, and longer — without even realizing it.

2: Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week

Do the math — that's just 2-1/2 hours a week. "To get the brain benefit of exercise, the gold standard is 150 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking briskly, spread over the course of a week," says Medina. (Be sure to warm up before and cool down after with gentle stretches for five minutes.)

Nor do you have to train for a marathon to reap brain benefits. In a recent Canadian study, researchers followed a large group of elderly adults for 2-5 years. None were fitness fanatics; their daily activities included walking, cooking, gardening and cleaning house. The results were stunning: Year after year, 90 percent of those who were consistently active showed no decline in their ability to think and remember.

Anything that gets your heart beating faster works. "You want to break a light sweat and feel like you're huffing and puffing,'' says Majid Fotuhi, M.D., medical director of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Lutherville, Md., "but you should still be able to speak."

Does it still count if you break up those 150 minutes into lots of smaller spurts? "That's the million-dollar question," says Erickson. "These figures have been largely based on studies of cardiovascular disease. While it's true that what's good for the heart is good for the brain, we can't say for sure that the figures also apply to brain fitness."


  • Go green. In a study from Ohio State University, people were more likely to stick with an exercise regimen when they were exercising outdoors. And researchers in Britain found that people who strolled through a park or other outdoor environment, as opposed to exercising indoors, had a measurable boost in focus, energy and well-being.

  • Sneak it in. Park your car at the far end of the mall lot. Get off the bus several stops before home, or walk up and down the field during your grandchild's soccer game.

  • If joints are stiff and muscles weak, try a low-impact workout like walking in the pool or taking a spin on a stationary bike. Pilates, yoga and tai-chi also place minimal stress on the body but still strengthen core muscles and improve balance. Never done any of that? All the better! As you'll read in our article on mental workouts, learning something new is another important pillar of brain health.

3: Add strength training

Strength or resistance training — using free weights, bands or machines — does more than bulk up your biceps. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine last year found that when women 70- to 80-years-old, who already had symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, did one to two hours of weight training two days a week for six months, they had better focus and decision-making skills than those in a control group who did only balance and toning exercises. They also were able to resolve conflicts more readily. The benefits went beyond simply stemming memory loss, researchers said, to actual improvements.


  • Especially if you have limited mobility or haven't lifted weights in more decades than you'd care to count, go easy, at least to start. Stretch before and after your workout.

  • Aim for at least 30 minutes twice a week, and work all the major muscle groups — arms, shoulders and chest; abdomen and back; hips and legs.

  • If you don't want to pay for a gym membership, buy your own hand weights and resistance bands. Then stow them next to the couch so you can squeeze in reps while you watch the news or catch up on Mad Men.

  • If you're thinking "There's got to be an app for that," you're right! Look for inexpensive watches, earbuds and bracelets with sensors that sync to your smartphone and record data about your weight, sleep habits, vital signs and how many steps you take each day. Log on to your computer for graphs and charts that show how much you've accomplished and how far you have to go. Think of your smartphone as your personal trainer, cajoling you to stick with the program even when you're convinced you can't.

4: Dance like nobody's watching

"A colleague once told me, 'The problem with older people is they just don't dance anymore!' " says Carstensen. "He's right. Dancing is terrific exercise; it's fun and something most people can easily do." 

Besides giving you a great cardio boost, dance improves balance, coordination and flexibility. It's also a weight-bearing exercise like jogging, walking, skiing, climbing stairs or skipping rope. These impact-producing activities all help you build bones and slow bone loss, expercially in the legs, hips and lower spine. Ballroom dances (think waltz, tango, foxtrot, salsa, cha-cha and swing) also work all the major muscle groups and build stamina.

Recent studies also have found that dancing helps forestall memory loss and dementia. A 2011 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that older adults who met twice weekly for six months to dance the cha-cha improved their memory and cognitive performance on a variety of tests.

A 2005 study by researchers at McGill University in Montreal compared two groups of older adults — one group danced the tango twice a week, the other simply walked. After 10 weeks, both groups did better on several cognitive tests. But the dancers outperformed the walkers on multitasking tests and saw additional gains in their coordination and balance.


  • The next time you have friends over, shove the coffee table aside, put on some music and just move it. No one's judging you, so park your ego at the door.

  • Feeling rusty? Check out dance classes at your local Y or senior center; you'll be surprised at the variety. Learning new moves, or refreshing old ones, challenges your brain and builds new connections.

  • Too shy? YouTube offers thousands of videos that can get you up to speed before you put on your dancing shoes.

Doctor's Orders

There's no one-size-fits-all exercise strategy, but we can all make simple lifestyle changes that go a long way toward boosting brain fitness. In his new book, Boost Your Brain: The New Art and Science Behind Enhanced Brain Performance, Majid Fotuhi, medical director of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Lutherville, Md., outlines three fitness plans — one for couch potatoes who never exercise; a second for weekend warriors or those who only work out occasionally; and a third for people who want to bump up their fitness to the optimal level.

"The more fit your body gets, the stronger will be your 'memory muscle' — the hippocampus," says Fotuhi. "For the best brain boost, I recommend 30 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, plus 15 minutes of resistance training, 5 days a week."

Who said an old dog can't learn new tricks? (Always get your doctor's OK before starting any exercise program.)

If you don't exercise at all:

Week 1: Start by walking for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, three days a week.

Week 2: Increase your walking time to 15 minutes, three days a week.

Week 3: Increase your walking time to 20 minutes, three days a week. In addition to your scheduled time, find ways to be active throughout the day.

If you exercise occasionally:

Week 1: Walk or jog for 20 minutes without interruption, three times a week.

Week 2: Increase your walking or jogging time to 30 minutes, four days a week. If you're walking, try to jog at least some of the time gradually increasing your jogging time if possible. Increase the amount of time you jog as the week goes on.

Week 3: Increase your walking or jogging to 30 minutes, five days a week. Gradually increase the intensity of your workout. If you'd like, you can substitute stationary bike, swimming or another aerobic activity, or you can substitute a one-hour game of tennis (or another intense activity) for two of your 30-minute sessions.

If you've been exercising regularly for years:

Week 1: Do 30 minutes of uninterrupted aerobic activity, five days a week, plus five extra minutes of weight lifting, push-ups or another muscle building activity, three days a week.

Week 2: Continue with 30 minutes of uninterrupted aerobic activity, five days a week. Bump up your muscle-building to 10 minutes, three days a week.

Week 3: Continue with 30 minutes of uninterrupted aerobic activity, five days a week. Bump up your weight lifting to 15 minutes, five days a week. Increase the intensity of your workout as needed so that you're improving your physical fitness.

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