New Rules for Saving Your Memory

Are you doing everything you can to stay sharp?

by Judy Jones
Photograph: Illustration: Christopher Silas Neal

The first piece of data came from geriatric studies done with people over 75. Statistics showed that if you had a physically active lifestyle, your risk of Alzheimer’s was low, your risk for vascular dementia was low and even your risk for affective disorders like depression was low. If you had a sedentary lifestyle, you were debilitated, had heart attacks early and had a much higher risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Studies also suggest that the ac-tive population is smarter than the sedentary population; that is, people who are active seem better able to “fully mobilize their IQ,” as we say in the lab. Active people score overwhelmingly better in cognitive abilities, spatial reaction times, and a whole range of other things than people who are sedentary.

Q | What, exactly, do you mean by an active lifestyle?

A | 
Active is defined as the presence of aerobic exercise as a regular part of your life, forever. It’s only been in the past three or four years that we’ve known how important this is. The bot-tom line is, aerobic exercise boosts brainpower, including the ability to pay attention to things and get back your capacity for controlled forgetting. Interestingly, strength-training exercise doesn’t produce this benefit, though it does deliver others.

Q | Can sedentary people increase their brainpower by starting an aerobic exercise program?

A |
They sure as heck can! The data show that in as little as four months of exercise—in the lab we use 30-minute aerobic workouts on a treadmill three times a week—it’s not unusual to get a 100 to 200 percent improvement in the various tests that measure the ability to process information. That is, as long as compliance is 100 percent. You won’t get those results exercising once a week.

Q | And will following this routine improve your memory?

A |  Yes, but preliminary research suggests memory improves only once you’ve been doing regular aerobic exercise for about three years. So this really is an argument for an immediate lifestyle change.
I actually did this myself last year. I installed a treadmill in my office and built a little platform on it where I could put my laptop. Then I did aerobic exercise five or six times a week, walking on the treadmill whenever I was on e-mail. And it worked! I’ve lost 37 pounds so far, and I’ve never felt intellectually clearer in my life.  

JUDY JONES is the coauthor of three editions of An Incomplete Education.

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