Just 20 minutes of exercise is as good as coffee for memory

Author: talkhealth

Date: Mar 2020

If you struggle to function without your daily gallon of coffee, you might want to consider adding a quick jog into your daily routine.

Because research suggests that just 20 minutes of exercise may be as good as a steaming cup of joe for our working memory - minus the negative side effects that comes from caffeine.

We know that coffee has a tonne of health benefits, from improving long-term memory to improving mental health and potentially reducing the risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes. But it can also cause things like insomnia, increased anxiety and raised cortisol (stress) levels. It can also be pretty addictive; try to cut down or go cold turkey and you start suffering from withdrawal symptoms. With coffee, you function at your best - without it, you’re trapped in crushing brain fog.

But it turns out that you can get the same mood and brain boosting effects from a single bout of exercise as you can from a daily espresso.

Scientists gathered a group together and got them to play a version of the card game ‘snap’. The idea was to test how well their working memory could store and remember information by showing participants an ever-increasing list of items and for them to spot any repeats.

The participants were split into two groups. In the first part of the study, both coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers took the test before and after a short, intense bout of exercise. The second part looked at how test results differed following 12 hours of caffeine-deprivation, to see if caffeine withdrawal had any impact.

The results showed that caffeine and exercise had similar effects, with participants showing similar improvements in working memory after spending 20 minutes on a treadmill as they did after drinking a single shot of coffee.

So why not just have a cup of coffee if you want to improve your memory?

Well, the point is that exercise has so many benefits - from reducing your risk of heart disease and some cancers, to improving mood - that the fact that it also helps you concentrate as well is just another massive bonus. And it does that without any negative consequences. Even better, the study also found that exercise can help ease caffeine withdrawal symptoms - if you ever did decide to cut down.

So next time you find yourself struggling to concentrate, try heading out for a brisk walk in the fresh air before reaching for a second cappuccino.

Tips for boosting cognitive function:

  • Get moving - jog, powerwalk, dance...just move! As we’ve just shown, a short, sharp bout of exercise is great for boosting your memory and mood. Try to get up from your chair every hour and schedule in at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise every day. That could be a morning jog, a lunchtime power walk or an evening gym class.
  • Sleep more - too few of us get enough shut eye these days but good quality sleep has been proven to improve learning and memory. Without a decent amount of kip, we’re less able to focus and learn effectively, while sleep also helps to consolidate a memory so that we can recall it in the future.
  • Booze less - you don’t need to black out completely to experience the ill-effects that booze can have on memory. Alcohol affects our short-term memory by slowing down how nerves talk to each other in the part of the brain that helps form and maintain memories. Reduce your intake and you stop that deceleration.
  • Try brain training - crosswords and Sudoku can help boost working memory, as can engaging in creative hobbies like painting, playing an instrument or learning a language.
  • Eat more fruit and veg - a Harvard study of almost 28,000 men found that those who ate six daily servings of fruit and veg were less likely to develop poor thinking skills than those who ate just two a day.
  • Care for others - looking after a dog or spending time with grandchildren can boost memory and reasoning skills.

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Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 11 March 2020

Next review: 11 March 2023