How to Become a Memory Maestro

By Mandy Johnson -Originally posted at Renegade Wellness

Struggling with recalling the name of the movie with that one guy? Want to help out a family member or friend with preparing for a test? Check out the science of remembering more.

I was sitting in church when I finally decided it was time. I have been debating about it and dancing around it because most people are jaded about it. They have been told about it countless times. But then I realized that my reasons for not addressing it were limiting beliefs. I believed that anyone who would open this post would think, “Yada yada. Heard it before,” but what if they hadn’t? What if I could provide information on a topic written about by different people thousands of times a day in a fun, snarky way that allows people to have a new perspective? And here is the first part of my series on exercise, written by a sarcastic exercise nerd that hopes she can change some of the attitude and mindset on…exercise. Yes, exercise because as it turns out exercise plays a key role in helping your brain grow more cells so you can have a better memory and a sexier brain.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Genetics Loads the Gun. Lifestyle Pulls the Trigger- George Bray 

Your lifestyle is how you choose to live your life, interact with others, and choose to eat and move your body. Your lifestyle is affected by how you act and interact with your environment. Lifestyle is structured by genetic code and is directed by how we handle our stress, eat, drink and move our bodies. 

Lifestyle and living are a series of good and not-so-good choices. When we are younger, the lifestyle choices don’t seem to have an immediate impact, but they can build up, like waters behind a dam. Eventually, even the best dam cannot withstand constant choices that put it under stress. When the dam breaks, the parts of the body that were protected are now at risk, and that includes your brain.

Exercise and our Genes

A 2011 Australian study reported that television viewing shortened life expectancy by 22 minutes for every hour of television viewing. The entire Game of Thrones series amounted to 63 hours of television viewing, which meant you had one less day to live if you watched all of it. While I might believe that your time was better spent watching the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the fact remains that we must move for our brain and body to function the way we are programmed or risk early death due to mediocre T.V. 

We have long known that exercise was good for us. Still, currently, we are just scratching the surface of understanding exactly how our bodies are adapted to being very physically active. Active does not mean we look like those guys who completely do not use illegal suppliments (wink, wink). Active mean movement. Understanding how our bodies have been programmed with the need to be physically active is what University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen and psychologist Gene Alexander have focused on in their research. Their work concentrates on a research program that looks specifically at exercise and the brain. Raichlen and Alexander believe that we have physiologically developed to survive longer with continual increases in physical activity levels as hunter-gatherers. Their research papers are as drool-worthy to exercise nerds as trashy romance novels are for women in their forties.  

A 2016 study revealed that endurance runners’ brains have more connections between regions of the brain than the brains of people who didn’t exercise when compared on MRI. This study mirrors the information in the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the BrainSpark discusses how exercise works to boost the number of connections in the brain. In simple terms, you have more nerve cells, and those nerve cells talk to more parts of the brain, allowing you to do more complex stuff. This build-up happens because exercise leads to an increase in the levels of important neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that your body can’t function without. Their job is to carry chemical signals (“messages”) from one neuron (nerve cell) to the next neuron. These neurotransmitters cause physical changes to your brain cells. 

Learning and your Brain

Every time you learn something new, the cells in your brain forge connections to process the new information. The more you use these connections, the better they work and the faster they work. An example would be how much effort you have to put into learning your multiplication tables, but now you know that 3×3=9 without having to work through why that is the case. Exercise helps to facilitate the connection process and strengthens it. The book Spark discusses real-life evidence of the use of exercise for struggling high school students. 

At Naperville Central High School, some students had difficulty with reading comprehension. The school formed an academic reading class for these students with an interesting addition for half of the students. They had one-half of the students participate in a before-school or zero-hour P.E. class with their regular P.E. class later in the day. This became Learning Readiness P.E., a class designed based on research that indicated that physically active and fit students were more academically alert. The group with zero-hour P.E. went directly from vigorous exercises to their reading class. The exercise class group improved their reading comprehension by 17 percent – while classmates who didn’t exercise improved only by 10.7 percent.

How Exercise Grows Your Brain

The results from the Naperville school are not alone in the research. Highly controlled experiments show that aerobic exercise leads to the formation of new brain cells within this brain. Exercise protects the brain across the lifespan, leading to enhanced brain functions and the potential for successful cognitive aging. It does this by causing new cell growth in the hippocampus. In addition to having a pretty funky name, the hippocampus plays a critical role in the formation, organization, and storage of new memories.

It is only recently that we do not need to be physically active regularly to live and survive. My great grandparents were extreme endurance athletes, working as farmers in Montana compared to me. However, almost no one thinks about the lack of exercise decreasing their brain ability because exercise is not a behavior that requires significant brain power. However, if you think about what made our ancestors successful, it was the amount of physical activity they put in during the day. If they hunted more, planted more, and harvested more they had a higher likelihood of survival because they were more active throughout the day. 

As is noted in Zombieland, the first rule of the zombie apocalypse is cardio. However, we don’t all need to pick up a shovel and go back to farming the old-fashioned way. A study of Glaswegian postal workers shows us that you don’t need to start running marathons to make a difference. The postal workers that got 15,000 steps or spent seven hours a day on their feet had the best health and very sexy hippocampus. Their sexy and beefy hippocampus meant that they also had an easier time remembering all the names of the Game of Thrones characters who died in the last season. So get out there and start working on getting that brain nice and beefy so can remember off-hand quotes from Dazed and Confused and finally win at trivia night. Alright, alright, alright. 

Action Steps

Get Deliberate: Write a realistic physical activity goal for yourself. One that stretches you a bit and schedules it at a time where you can’t get out of it as easily. 

Get Inspired: Find the reason why you actually care about committing to exercise. Your why can be the thing that pulls you through when you want to sleep in or have that candy bar.

Get Going: Sometimes, the best thing I do for myself is to put on my running shoes and workout clothes first thing in the morning or lay them out the night before. It is prepping me to head out the door to get my exercise on.

This is a guest blog by Amanda (Mandy) Johnson of Renegade Wellness. Mandy empowers people to live their lives without physical limitations. This article was originally posted on her Substack.
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Mandy is an avid Full Focus Planner® user.

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