Exercise to improve memory

Now, where did I put my …

Changing how you remember things is one exercise to improve memory.
Changing how you remember things is one exercise to improve memory

We all forget stuff. And most of the time there’s nothing to worry about. We probably didn’t pay attention when storing that information in our brains the first time. But, of course, as we get older, one of the biggest concerns most of us have is not being able to remember things. Here are exercises to improve our memories, as part of our healthy aging regimen.

Change how you remember things

When you want to remember something, really focus on it. Here’s a brain exercise to improve your memory: focus on the environment – sounds, sights, smells surrounding the thing you want to remember. Remember those things as well as the thing itself. Don’t try to do more than remember this new thing while you’re doing the focus exercise.

Dr. Darren Gitelman, senior medical director of the Advocate Memory Center at Lutheran General Hospital, says, “It is thought that, in a way, you don’t remember the same memory over time, but rather, you remember the memory that is reinforced over time. If the context shifts what you recall, and this modified memory gets strengthened over time, then eventually, what you may recall may be a memory that has been shifted by the context, rather than the original memory itself.” So the context may shift and your memory can change. But if you remember everything surrounding the memory, these stronger context clues will help us remember the memory more accurately.

Connect new information to things you already know

Dr. Gitelman says that connecting new information to familiar images and thoughts will help you remember the new stuff. Say, for example, I learned something new about Boston Terriers. If I connect that information with a specific mental image of my Simon, it will help me remember it.

Rehearse new information

When I played piano years ago, I memorized each piece in multiple ways. From the beginning, of course, but also from the end. Phrase by phrase, or however it made sense. When you memorize and rehearse, new information becomes a memory.

Take care of your brain

Eat right, get enough sleep and exercise to improve your memory.
Eat right, get enough sleep and exercise to improve your memory.

Other ways you can improve your memory: Eat right, exercise, get enough sleep. Yes – exercise to improve your memory. Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, says that studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are larger in volume in people who exercise than in people who don’t. “Even more exciting,” McGinnis says, “is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions.” If you exercise, your brain can grow!

Exercise also can boost muscle memory. That complicated piece of choreography in an aerobics routine will get easier, not just because we practice it, but also because the fact that we’re exercising helps our memory.

We want that big brain for our memory! So, I’m going to keep on exercising.

No time to exercise?

Even short workouts can be effective.

You’ve heard the arguments about the benefits of exercise for your healthy aging. And you … sort of … believe them. But – who has the time? If you’re saying, “I have no time to exercise!” you owe it to yourself to squeeze in a short but effective workout.

Everyone has 22 minutes

150 minutes a week. That’s all the CDC recommends for exercise. So if you have 22 minutes to get your heart pumping while you climb some stairs, take the dog for a walk, ride the stationary bike, you’ve met the guidelines!

Short workouts will keep you on track

If I’ve only got a half hour, I can still get in my workout and have time to clean up. Because that clean-up is important. I don’t have to worry about being late to an appointment and I will still feel virtuous that I exercised. But you’re saying, “How can I choose a workout, do it and get cleaned up in a half hour? That’s ridiculous!” Planning. Plan a week’s worth of exercise in advance. If you have a calendar for your appointments and commitment, schedule your workouts on the same calendar. I use Google’s free calendar so that I can color code my different appointments. 

But are short workouts effective?

Now you’re probably saying, “I love the idea of short workouts, but will they work for me?” The short answer is, “Yes!” If those 22 minutes of your workout are intense and heart-pumping, it will get your blood and oxygen moving. You’ll get the memory-boosting benefits of a good workout, and you’ll release some endorphins and feel great after you towel off. So, never say you have no time to exercise. 

In fact, exercise physiologist Jenna Gillen at the University of Toronto, and her team showed in a study that just one minute of very intense exercise in a workout lasting 10 minutes total can improve fitness and health. Notice the words “very intense.” This is beyond maximum level – something I’m not really up for most days.

Plus, shorter, more energetic workouts can help you stay motivated to exercise. They’re done in no time, and you may actually look forward to your next workout. You won’t be bored with the workout, so won’t be tempted to procrastinate and then run out of the short amount of time you have to exercise.

I can’t do an intense, vigorous workout every time

I hear you. At my age, I just can’t face the treadmill and running for every workout. And that’s OK. Dr. Jennette Berry, family medicine physician at Advocate South Suburban Hospital, believes that fitting in movement throughout your day, no matter the length, is important for your health. “Exercise can help control your blood pressure and can help prevent future heart disease.” 

The next time you find yourself thinking, “I have no time to exercise,” remember that no matter how much time you give it, exercise is always good. 

The danger of overdoing exercise

Exercise is good but don’t overdo 

Exercise is good, but don't overdo it. Over-training can be just as harmful as not exercising at all.
Exercise is good, but don’t over do it.

I’ve been telling you about the benefits of exercise for a long time. The first time I listed some of the benefits of exercise was way back in 2015 in my article “Why Exercise?” Exercise burns calories so you can eat more (still my favorite reason!), it can combat some health conditions and diseases, it boosts your mood and gives you energy, and on and on. Exercise is good, but don’t overdo it. 

I remember years ago when I used to go to a gym there were women on treadmills and stationary bikes for hours and they wondered why they kept getting sick or weren’t losing any weight. In all probability, these people were overtraining. 

Cortisol and “fight or flight”

Cortisol is a hormone your body produces when it’s under stress, or when your body thinks it’s under attack. If you’re walking along and a big dog jumps at you from behind a fence and starts barking, you’re still going to jump. Your heart is going to beat faster, even though you know that it can’t get to you from behind the fence. Your body is designed to automatically protect you from threats. It produces adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline speeds up your heart and makes you hyper-aware of threats.

When you realize that you’re safe and the threat is gone, your heart rate goes back to normal and your breathing slows down. According to the Mayo Clinic, cortisol “curbs functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.” 

Cortisol and exercise

So, when you overdo exercise, your system thinks it’s under attack and produces cortisol. And keeps producing it. So your body retains elevated levels of cortisol. It can interfere with the way your body works normally and even slow down your metabolism, according to Louis Cohn, a physical therapist at Aurora Sports Health. Cohn says, “When starting out, aerobic sessions should be kept between 30 and 45 minutes. You are then able to obtain the positive effects of cardiovascular training without the negative effects of over-training.” So it turns out that over-exercising can be just as bad as not exercising at all.

Moderation in everything

My workouts are 30 to 45 minutes 3 or 5 days a week. On days when I don’t have anything pressing, I’ll do a 50-minute workout. This works for both aerobic and weight training. And remember to rest the muscle group you worked the day after that strength program. 

So, like chocolate, exercise is good, but don’t overdo. Be sure to listen to your body. If you’re tired or if your body is aching in ways that are weird, you may be overdoing exercise. Take a break. Do something less stressful for yourself. A gentle yoga or pilates practice might be a good “rest day” activity. And be sure to eat well to fuel your body.

4 Steps to compassionate resilience

Being mentally tough, or “resilient,” is what all the psychology “experts” are talking about in the last couple of years. While it’s crucial to our well-being and healthy aging to be able to bounce back when the going gets tough, it’s also important to stay kind – what I call “compassionate resilience.”


If you’re feeling panicked by events in the world, the first step is to be aware of that feeling, and then how you’re going to interact with those events. Is it panic? Or overwhelm? Are you frustrated? If you’re an observer, observe without judgment of yourself. If you’re a doer, figure out how you can make the situation better – first for yourself and then, perhaps, for others. 

Be aware of how your feelings affect you. Identify them – is it fear or anxiety that you’re feeling? Why? How will the happenings far away affect you here and now? Or here and later. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, identifying the things that are causing that feeling will help you to start on unraveling the tangle of burdens that you feel pressing upon you. Nurse practitioner Deborah Stamm of the Center for Health and Integrative Medicine at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital says that naming the emotion “lessens the intensity and reminds you that you are in control of the emotion, not the other way around. It keeps you connected with your logical brain, and you are better able to think of new ways to handle situations that arise.”


Taking action will help you turn your narrative around. Write your Congressperson!
Taking action will help you turn your narrative around.

If that outcome is not something we want, how can you change it? Changing the narrative from, “I’m scared” to “I’m going to write to my Congressperson” will make you feel that you’re accomplishing something worthwhile. You’re being mindful of the moment, you dispassionately thought about the situation and decided on a course of action. At the same time, though, be sure not to let yourself think too much about the future. Do what you can now and put the situation aside until something changes or something else can be done about it

Be grateful

Stamm says another crucial aspect of resilience is gratitude. She says our brains are wired for negativity but, in contrast, optimism leads to resilience. We have to work on our positivity, to balance our brains. See my article “Five Ways to Maintain Positivity” for a start. Stamm recommends writing in a gratitude journal for a start on triggering positivity every day.

Be kind to yourself

Finally, to boost your resilience, be kind to yourself. If others talk about you in negative terms, don’t believe them! It’s easy to be down on yourself. We all do it from time to time. “I’m too fat.” “I shouldn’t eat that chocolate.” “My hair is terrible.” It’s easy to get caught in that trap. But – don’t! Eliminate that negative self-talk! You are worthwhile. The things you do are amazing! Believe that. 

Be grateful for the great things in your life. Believe that you’re worth every good thing that comes your way. Identify your feelings, especially the negative ones so that you can create a plan of action to turn your own narrative around. All this will lead you to compassionate resilience. You’ll be mentally tough – but still kind and compassionate.