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How to Increase Memory and Think Better

How to Increase Memory and Think Better

Two questions: First, what if something that’s easy to do every day could increase your memory and improve your ability to do tricky tasks (you know . . . negotiate airport parking, manage your boss on Mondays, harness eight tiny reindeer)? You’d do it in a heartbeat, right?

Second, what’s on your wish list? A shiny new exercise bike? Maybe you asked for "Just Dance" the super-fun Wii workout, or a brand new pedometer. Incidentally, did you just blast in from your daily walk, rosy-cheeked and ready to rip?

Awesome.

That's your memory cheering, not just us. That walk gave you a jolt of something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, better known as BDNF (riding an exercise bike and dancing to “Gonna Make You Sweat” will give you the same). Think of it as Miracle-Gro for your memory.

We know exercise increases BDNF, and we have long been convinced that exercise improves mental fitness as well as physical fitness, so it has seemed likely that exercise and BDNF are connected. Specific links have been elusive, but four very different studies—on Irish college students, U.S. airplane pilots, elderly rats in Brazil, and younger ones in California—suggest we're right.

Here's the super-short version of how it all works: Immediately after physical activity (e.g., riding a bike, running a maze), brain levels of BDNF shoot up, as does mental agility. That is, you think better and remember more. Work out regularly and BDNF levels stay up. If you've got a genetic tendency to lose BDNF with age (some people do), exercise may be even more important to increase memory and improve task skills. These 6 foods can boost your brain-power, too.

So, if you-know-who doesn't come through with that bike or Wii dance workout, buy 'em for yourself. Just say your brain made you do it.

Another way to increase your memory: Have fun playing brain games.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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