Use Exercise to Improve Your Memory

Intensive exercise for as short as 15 minutes improves memory.

You already know that physical activity is right for your body. But did you know that it is also good for your brain? Now we have a recent study from the University of Geneva (Switzerland) that shows:

An intensive physical exercise session as limited as 15 minutes in duration improves memory, including acquiring new motor skills.

I just completed a workout on my treadmill. More specifically, an on-screen instructor motivated me through a short (but challenging) high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session. I am not going to lie. I struggled. Now, let me share a bit of the upside, health benefits aside.

Exercise-induced euphoria and endocannabinoids

Following the completion of the 20-minute workout, I felt a sense of satisfaction and psychological well-being. We know that the latter is secondary to endocannabinoids, small molecules produced by the body during physical exertion.

These small endocannabinoids circulate in my blood before crossing the blood-brain barrier. The molecules bind to specialized cell receptors, triggering a sense of euphoria. You probably already knew about the so-called runners high, but did you know that these same molecules bind to a part of your brain that is central to memory?

The study: Intensive exercise more effective

Let’s look at how scientists examined the effects of acute physical exercise on motor sequence memory. They asked 15 young male non-athletes to take a memory condition under three conditions:

  • following 30 minutes of moderate cycling
  • following 15 minutes of intense cycling (80 percent of maximum heart rate)
  • after a period of rest

They tested fifteen right-handed, healthy, and fit males (19 to 27 years old) in a randomized within-subjects design involving three visits (one condition per visit).

Here is how the researchers examined memory: They had a screen that showed four points next to one another. As one of the dots briefly changed into a star, the study subjects had to press the corresponding button as fast as possible. Before the test, the researchers established a repetitive sequence to evaluate how the research participants learned the movements.

The scientists combined behavioral, imaging (functional MRI), and blood sample measurements. Let’s turn to the results of a single episode of physical exercise:

  • Physical exercise increased blood levels of endocannabinoids (arachidonoyl-ethanolamide or AEA, also known as anandamide). The increase occurred with both moderate and high-intensity exercise.
  • Physical activity aroused the hippocampus and the caudate nucleus, as demonstrated by brain imaging. The former is central to memory, while the latter is essential for motor processing.

The authors note that the higher the endocannabinoid levels following intense exercise, the more the brain is activated and the better the brain’s performance. Their observations support the observation that physical activity benefits motor learning performance.

Now you have one more reason to engage in physical activity. This minimally invasive, inexpensive effort may help you to improve motor memory. The research study authors had previously demonstrated activity to improve associative memory, a different form of memory.

Thank you for joining me today.


I have degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Penn. I am a radiation oncologist in the Seattle area. You may find me regularly posting at

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