Like a lot of other folks, these trying times have affected my mind, body and spirit. It seems like all of our tempers are running high and all our energy levels are running low. The latest quirk I've noticed is that my memory is not as good as it once was. I'm not alone — research shows both long- and short-term stress can cause forgetfulness for everyone. From struggling to remember what you did a couple of hours ago to being unable to recall specific details about what happened months ago, stress has a very real impact on your memory.
So how do you battle this insidious loss of memory? It's not like you can just turn off the stress button that's being pushed in your brain right now. Luckily, new research shows that just 20 minutes of exercise and mindfulness activity can improve your ability to both learn and remember in the long term.
Scientists already knew that exercise could boost memory, and mindfulness has been demonstrated to improve just about everything from physical health to couples' conflicts, but this study from 2019 shows that the combination of both is key in improving long-term memory.
Why Does the Combination of Mindfulness and Exercise Improve Memory?
To understand this question, you first have to understand the physical effects of stress on your body.
When you're stressed in the short-term, like when you get a phone call with bad news, or you stub your toe, your brain immediately floods your system with adrenaline and cortisol.
This is supposed to be a helpful response, normally — your brain thinks it's helping you escape a bad situation. The adrenaline gives you a boost of energy, and the cortisol gives you the tools to remember that event in vivid detail.
But while these hormones can help you deal with, remember, and ideally be prepared for these events in the future, when you live with high levels of stress for a longer time, the cortisol stops being as effective. Your hippocampus is really sensitive to cortisol levels, and if your system has too much of it all the time, eventually your ability to form and recall memories is hampered for the long-term.
This is where exercise and mindful meditation come in. Exercise — even just ten minutes of it! — has been demonstrated time and time again to help form memories. Mindful meditation, meanwhile, activates the neural networks associated with memory retrieval.
By first exercising and then performing a mindful meditation exercise, you are boosting your brain's ability to form and then retrieve the memory later.
Even though both methods on their own can help memory, it's the combination that's truly powerful.
How to Improve Your Memory in Just 20 Minutes.
Researchers still don't know exactly what doing this combination every day would do to your memory in the long-run, but it certainly won't be a bad thing. In the meantime, it's beneficial for your immediate needs, too, both for your professional and personal life. Here's how you can leverage this knowledge to make your life a little better, one memory at a time.
First, identify what you're struggling to remember more, and what you most want to recall. For me, it's meaningful conversations with my significant other and calls with my clients.
Then, clear out 20 minutes before you know the events are taking place. For example, I found time just before my Zoom date to fit in a quick workout and meditation session.
After that, pick out the physical and mental exercises you're going to complete. The 2019 study recommended a 10-minute jog for the physical exercise and a 10-minute deep breathing exercise and a full-body scan. As long as you're getting your heart rate up and then cultivating a true sense of relaxation, you'll tick those boxes. I chose some jump roping and a guided breathing exercise.
Finally, all that's left to do is do it. I personally noticed afterward how much fresher the memory of my date was, and how much richer my notes were after my client call. And all it took was 20 minutes.
It's one thing to just say that mindfulness and exercise are beneficial to you, but it's another to understand the psychological and neurological processes that actually improve your memory.
This 2019 study shows how the combination of exercise and mindful meditation together are truly key for improving your ability to form and recall long-term memories. In times like these, it's no wonder that our mental health is being affected, but in just 20 minutes, you can be on your way to helping your brain's memory.
Simply identify your most pressing memory needs, find a 20-minute space, and give your brain the tools it needs to form and retrieve long-term memories.