Got 10 minutes? Here's how to give your memory a boost in the time it would take to grab a coffee

A small new study finds a short walk or yoga session could immediately improve memory function.

A small new study finds a short walk or yoga session could immediately improve memory function

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

It can be hard to find the time — or, let's face it, the energy — for exercise at any time of year, let alone after the hectic holiday season. We all know that working up a sweat is good for our bodies and minds, but when you're working late to get caught up and then facing a long commute home, carving out an hour to hit the gym can feel impossible.

But it turns out you don't need to suffer through a 90-minute spin class or do endless burpees and crunches to get some of the perks of exercise. When it comes to cognitive benefits, new research shows a mere 10 minutes of relaxing yoga or strolling on the treadmill could actually enhance memory function.

Researchers from Japan's University of Tsukuba and the University of California, Irvine gave 36 university-aged adults a memory test. The subjects were shown photos of everyday objects, and five minutes later they were shown images that were either the same, brand new or very similar to the ones they'd seen before. They were then asked to identify the photos they recognized.

While they were doing the task, the participants' brain activity was monitored with a functional MRI. Each person took the test twice, once after 10 minutes of rest and once after 10 minutes of lightly peddling a recumbent bike. (Think a "cruising down the boardwalk" level of exertion, not the Tour de France!)

The researchers found that participants scored higher on the challenging memory task after the micro-workout. Not only that, but the MRI scans showed the workout actually increased connectivity between the hippocampus, which is involved in memory storage, and other parts of the brain linked to highly detailed recollection. This suggests that memories were being stored with a higher level of accuracy and precision.

Michael Yassa, one of the authors of the study and the director of UC Irvine's Yassa Translational Neurobiology Lab, says this research is unique in that it shows memory improvement after a minimal amount of exercise. This makes it a game-changer, especially for people who are unable to work out frequently or intensely.

"Right now, we tell people, 'Oh, you should exercise,'" Yassa says. "And usually it's a big recommendation like, 'You should do at least 20 to 40 minutes a day, five days a week.' For some, especially those who might have mobility impairments in older age, that could be a tall order."

Micro-workouts could also yield big benefits for students and other people with a cognitively demanding workload. Yassa says it could be particularly helpful to take a 10 or 15-minute walk before an exam, or just when you're in need of an extra "mental boost."

As a university professor, Yassa has applied his research findings to his own professional life. "So now with my students, for example, I do walking meetings, where we kind of walk and talk," he says.

Previous research backs up the idea that hitting the gym is great for your brain, but the bulk of these studies have focused on longer-term exercise habits rather than one-time bursts of activity. A 2017 study from McMaster University researchers found that people who followed a regimen of intense, short bouts of interval training for six weeks showed memory improvements, while a control group who stayed sedentary did not. Studies have also shown that university-aged students who are physically active tend to have higher grades.

The world's top health authorities also recommend breaking a sweat as a memory-booster. The Mayo Clinic suggests working out multiple times per week to improve memory in those with mild cognitive impairment, and the World Health Organization advises all adults over 65 to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, in part to ward off cognitive decline.

Clearly, a regular workout routine yields greater benefits than a single 10-minute burst of activity. Yassa says the takeaway from the UC Irvine study isn't that people should cut back on workouts, but that a very minimal amount of activity can still have a positive effect when becoming a full-on cardio junkie feels too daunting.

"If someone is already walking 30 minutes a day, you should definitely not tell them to go down to 10. But if you're starting from zero, I think 10 is a low bar to achieve," Yassa says, adding that for individuals with mobility impairments, 10 minutes of light exercise is "a threshold they can try to get to without too much hassle."

As the world's population ages (the UN says the number of people over 60 is expected to double between 2017 and 2050),  Yassa is hopeful that future research will help optimize exercise for older individuals and even those with Alzheimer's.

"The future of exercise science is very rich, and we're not done."

Jillian Bell is a Toronto-based writer and editor with bylines in Chatelaine, the Globe and Mail and the United Church Observer.


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