Enhancing Memory Through the Power of Aerobic Exercise

It is generally understood that exercise is good for our physical bodies, but did you know that exercise can also improve cognitive performance? One such benefit of aerobic exercise specifically is its ability to enhance our memory. There have been a multitude of studies designed to investigate the nuances of this exact phenomenon, including a recent systematic review and meta-analysis.

Aerobic Exercise Improved Performance on Memory Tests

The analysis reviewed nine different studies with patients aged 50 years old and older. Six of the studies used exercise regimens that follow the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommendations for aerobic physical activity. These guidelines suggest that all adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (like brisk walking or cycling) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (like jogging or dancing) on a weekly basis. In the studies, the type of exercises varied from brisk walking to swimming, but all that met the U.S. guidelines reported “significant and large” effects. It is important to note that the duration of the studies ranged from three months to one year, each with its own unique breakdown of how to meet these total weekly minutes. 

In order to study the link between exercise and memory, there are several  memory tests that scientists can use to test the different aspects of our memory. While most of the included studies chose to observe changes in working and logical memory (important for reasoning and decision-making), some used tests to observe the changes in spatial and episodic memory (remembering information like names, places, and colors). The results of the overall meta-analysis concluded that there was a strong relationship between undergoing aerobic exercise and improvements in memory. 

What is BDNF?

Dr. Doug Noordsy, Head of Cognitive Enhancement at Stanford Lifestyle Medicine, hypothesizes that aerobic exercise improves memory by releasing Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which was discussed in the analysis. BDNF is a protein that is released due to the widening of the blood vessels (systemic vasodilation) that occurs during physical activity. Once this protein reaches our brain through the bloodstream, it aids the longevity and growth of healthy neurons, which are vital for learning and memory processes. Also, exercise turns on specific genes that activate neurotrophic factors like BDNF, allowing us to create additional BDNF as we exercise throughout life. 

So, next time you catch yourself recalling an old story or trying to match a name to a face, remember to move your body and get your heart rate up!


By: Carly Smith, BS, MPH(c)


  1. Hoffmann et al. Aerobic Physical Activity to Improve Memory and Executive Function in Sedentary Adults without Cognitive Impairment: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis“. Journal of Preventative Medicine Reports. Sep. 2021.