Are There Exercises to Improve Memory? (7 Proven Drills)
Brain exercises can be really effective at improving memory. Some of these exercises include learning a foreign language, playing crossword puzzles, number skipping, the 4 details observation task, and repeating what people say in your mind.
From age 30 and above, the brain begins to shrink. The rate of shrinkage accelerates as people cross into their 60s.
The parts of a healthy brain – the frontal lobe and hippocampus – responsible for cognitive function shrink more than other areas.
Memory skills, language, perception, and attention are some of the brain’s cognitive functions.
In addition to the brain’s natural decline, bad habits also contribute significantly to the brain’s cognitive decline.
Examples of these bad habits include too much sitting, lack of socializing, poor nutrition, terrible sleep hygiene, and chronic stress.
In anticipation of a potential decline in your brain health, it is imperative to find ways to strengthen and boost memory, especially if you’re 30 and above.
One of the ways you can improve your memory is through brain exercises.
In this article, we dive into the brain-boosting benefits and proven examples of brain exercises you can use to improve memory skills and reduce forgetfulness.
Are memory exercises really effective in improving memory?
There’s ample evidence that memory exercises can improve cognitive functions, including memory skills. Many published papers, including those in peer-reviewed journals, allude to the benefits of cognitive training.
Research published in the Schizophrenia Research Journal concluded that “exercise and cognitive training may synergistically increase fronto-cingulate cortical thickness.”
Cortical thickness measures how much gray matter is in the brain. It also enables humans to control memory, amongst other things.
Furthermore, Preventing Alzheimer’s disease with Cognitive Training (PACT) notes that its research has shown that brain games may improve mental quickness and visual attention.
In 2020, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved EndeavorRx by Akili as a brain training game to treat Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in kids.
According to Akili, EndeavorRx is designed to enhance cognitive function. This approval was the first of its kind and signified a stamp of approval by the apex regulatory body in the United States.
Brain exercises work because the brain is flexible. This attribute of the brain is referred to as brain plasticity or neuroplasticity.
There are over 30 years of scientific evidence that this phenomenon is lifelong, which means anyone can improve their memory.
What is brain plasticity?
Neuroplasticity describes what happens when we learn new things or memorize new information. The brain literally has to reorganize in response to the fresh experience. The brain does this by creating new or strengthening bonds between neurons.
The canary bird is perhaps the best illustration of what brain plasticity is. Scientists found that neurons in the brains of male canaries substantially increased during mating season. Male canaries have to learn new songs to woo potential female partners.
The lead research scientist, Fernando Nottebohm, noted that these neurons made it possible for male canaries to learn and remember new songs.
Scientists have also proven that humans produce new neurons in the region the male canaries did.
Targeted brain training provides tailored, consistent, and well-designed experiences that can potentially reorganize neural pathways in the brain.
For these exercises to work, they must require your attention, focus, and engagement. Whether digital or in-person, the exercises must challenge your brain in new ways.
Our course, Maximizing Memory, leverages this cognitive phenomenon to help you retain more information.
Benefits of brain exercises to cognitive function
You walk into a room and can’t remember why you entered there. Try as you may, you can’t recall. You wonder: Why can’t I memorize easily?
The worst part is that this has been a recurring theme for some time now. It’s worrisome, and you fear it may embarrass you one day.
You did a few googling and found some brain exercises you could engage in. But one last lingering thought: what are the benefits of brain exercises?
Brain exercises vary in delivery and the brain function they target. Nevertheless, improving memory is the biggest gain of these exercises. Other benefits of brain exercises include gaining a sense of control, improved attention span, increased reaction time, and overall mental agility.
Improved memory and brain health
When examined, many people have a very predictable routine with little scope for slight changes from time to time.
Think about it, you’ve probably done the same job for several years. The job is no longer challenging. There are no new problems to solve and rarely new experiences to savor.
As a cardiothoracic surgeon of many years, only a few scenarios can challenge you. But the prospects of learning a new language or coding, for example, would likely be more challenging and rewarding for you, brain health wise.
And as you have learned above, brain wellness requires new challenges and experiences to strengthen and form new neural connections and pathways. These new neural pathways are important for learning.
Scientists found that the neurons of a trained animal had more branches and significantly more synaptic varicosities than those from untrained animals. Long-term memory is dependent on the formation of these branches and synaptic varicosities.
So, learning new things and experiences through brain exercises is one way to improve your long-term memory.
Control and confidence
Imagine operating with the fear of forgetting something, like forgetting a key part of your presentation or even forgetting your child in the car. Knowing these scenarios are possible doesn’t fill you with much confidence.
But when you begin to observe improvement in your memory and other cognitive skills, your confidence likely skyrockets too.
Thus, it helps create a positive outlook of control and self-confidence. Just knowing you can improve your memory can provide a much-needed boost in your confidence and mood.
Improved attention span
Some brain exercises can also help to improve focus and attention. For example, one brain exercise asks you to note four traits about a person and then make a mental note. After making a mental note, you’ll try to recall those traits later by writing them down.
These exercises force you to focus on what’s in front of you rather than allowing your mind to drift. You can adapt this exercise to other things, too, like food. What herbs or spices can you taste in the food?
If you’ve been struggling with concentrating during meetings, brain training exercises can help. Our Personal Productivity course will also help you focus and become more productive.
Increased reaction time
Some brain training has a time component. These quick-fire challenges require speed, focus, and alertness. They force you to react quickly and accurately.
If you’re a sports fan, this may be an incredible trait to have. Even driving on the road as a regular person may require quick reaction time to deal with driving situations.
Mental agility refers to a person’s quickness of mind, ability to solve problems, and creativity. Targeted brain exercises can help keep you mentally sharp.
Doing crossword puzzles, chess, reading a book from a new genre, playing a new sport, and all sorts of new challenges will train different parts of your brain. The resultant effect of doing these new things is improved mental agility.
7 best memory-boosting exercises
The best memory boosting exercises force you to do one or more of the following: focus, think, problem-solve, learn new things, and recall from memory.
They all also require a significant time investment. It’s not enough to engage in an exercise once or twice and expect instant rewards.
The goal is to improve the brain’s capacity to recall information. This process requires time and consistent practice.
Some of the best memory-boosting exercises include the 4-details observation task, learning a foreign language or musical instrument, crossword puzzles, number skipping, and creating a memory palace.
1. The 4-details observation exercise
The 4-details observation exercise challenges you to do two things. The first is to focus and observe, and the other is to recall from memory.
So how does it work?
Choose someone at random and observe four things about them. Then some later time, try to recall those four things. It could be anything about them, such as the color of their lipstick, the pouch of their phone, hair color, accessories they had on, and much more.
We recommend that you start observing one person at first. You can scale it up by observing two or more people per day.
Because you should be doing this exercise for a long time, you may create and stick to a selection criterion. For example, you can choose to observe the person sitting ahead of you on the train every morning. Creating a selection pattern could encourage consistency.
2. Crossword puzzles
A study of participants who played crossword puzzles versus those who played other cognitive games showed that the former group didn’t experience as much cognitive health decline or brain shrinkage as the latter group.
The participants aged 55-95 had mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This result shows the powerful potential of these puzzles in helping with cognitive impairment.
When you play crossword puzzles, you leverage your verbal memory as you try to fill in the blanks from the descriptive phrases. Research has shown that the brain uses more regions during vocabulary tasks.
These puzzles engage your mind as you find the missing words and learn about new words and their meaning. Bonus points if the puzzles are more challenging and difficult. This is the overarching idea of targeted brain exercises in the first place: to test you and challenge you.
You can take this exercise further by tracking the new words you learn and trying to use them in multiple sentences the next day.
3. Number skipping
Numbers, numeracy, and mathematics are beneficial to working memory. A study published in 2021 found that solving math problems enhanced cognitive function.
Doing them off-hand makes solving math problems more difficult to solve. One of the simplest math-related exercises you can try is counting, but with a twist.
You can count from 100 to 1, but while skipping some numbers. You can decide to skip every two or three numbers. For example, instead of saying 99 after 100, you jump to 97 and then 94. You continue like that till you get to the lowest digit.
You can always switch up the scope of this exercise. From three skips, scale up to five skips.
4. Draw a map from memory
If you’ve been in a place for a long time, it may feel intuitive that you know everywhere. Why not put it to the test? Pull out a sketchbook and try to draw the map of your neighborhood from memory.
Your map should detail the major landmarks, significant streets, and notable spots like restaurants and supermarkets. When done, compare what you drew with the actual map. How did you do?
If this was easy, you could try to draw a map of somewhere you haven’t been in a while. Perhaps where you grew up. You could even draw a map of the United States with the location of each state.
Challenging yourself to remember the map of a location helps to strengthen brain function.
5. Create a memory palace
This memory technique is premised on the knowledge that we typically remember the places we know. Think of a memory palace as any place you can easily visualize. It can be your living room, your meeting space in the office, or your favorite restaurant.
So how does a memory palace work?
First, pick a familiar place. The effectiveness of this method depends on your ability to visualize and move around in this location. The more vivid the location is in your mind, the better.
The next step is to identify the unique features associated with the place. For example, you identify things like the TV and furniture placement. These features will serve as a “memory slot” to store information.
Next, you want to ensure this place and all the memory slots you created are properly imprinted in your mind. This step may require a little practice walking through your memory palace.
Once the vision of your palace is clear, the next step is to associate information with each memory slot. One of the tricks of this step is to make your visualization dramatic and memorable. You have more chances of remembering that way.
The last step is to visit your palace. As you mentally walk around the place, the items you memorized should easily come to your mind. Once you’ve mastered a particular memory palace for a specific purpose, you can create additional palaces as your need arises.
6. Occasionally use your non-dominant hand
Have you tried to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand before? You’ll likely move your head more than your hand. With more practice, however, you’ll get better at it.
There are many ways you can put this into practice. You can write, paint, move your mouse, or even use your phone with your non-dominant hand.
Using your “weak” hand may help strengthen your brain’s neural connections and improve cognitive function.
7. Take a new route
The brain loves predictability and routine. Breaking that predictability from time to time is great for a healthy brain.
You can make things less predictable by doing things differently. If you roast your duck the same way all the time, try something different. If you go to work via a particular route, try other routes.
You can also use other modes of transportation or even use public options. The trick is to introduce a bit of chaos into your routine to keep your brain active.
Other activities that can improve your memory
In addition to the above exercises, these activities also help you to improve your cognitive skills and memory.
Learn a new skill
Learning a new skill requires the most time and commitment to strengthen brain function. This activity is one of the exercises that guarantee long-term memory gains.
You can learn a foreign language or master a new musical instrument or pick up a new hobby like astronomy or bird watching.
Multilingual individuals have been shown to have a reduced risk of developing dementia.
In another study, an experimental group exposed to learning new skills such as digital photography and quilting improved their memory tests. When tested a year later, the experimental group still retained those memory improvements.
The control group exposed to less mentally challenging activities like listening to the radio did not enjoy such improvements.
The authors concluded that “sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhance memory function in older adulthood.”
If you choose to learn a foreign language, pick one that is not too similar to your native tongue. For example, Dutch and German are quite similar. Make sure the whole experience is indeed new.
You can further challenge yourself by trying to teach another person what you’re learning. Not only does it reinforce knowledge, but it also reengages your ability to recall.
Practice memory-based meditation
Memory-based meditation is similar to the memory palace technique but from a different angle. Rather than associating the memory slots with the information you want to remember, you associate them with 5-10 happy memories.
Then, as you traverse your memory palace, you’ll encounter these happy memories. You can draw inspiration from these happy memories whenever you’re down or meditating.
Research has shown mindfulness meditation to improve mental fitness, empathy, focus, working memory capacity, and attention.
There’s no limit to how many memory palaces you can create. Whenever you enjoy good experiences, you can add them to a memory palace and visit the palace regularly till the memory sticks.
Repeat what people say in your mind
This exercise is simple in theory but hard to follow or accomplish. You must drown out both external and internal distractions and focus on the conversation happening in front of you.
When conversing with person A, repeat everything they say in your mind. You’d be surprised that remembering something person A just said to you is harder than you think.
You’ll gradually boost brain function and remember more.
It’s like being in an interview and trying to repeat the questions asked by the interviewer. Repeating the question ensures you understand the question and gives you more time to answer the same.
Test your recall often
Try to put your memory to the test often. You can make a random list of things and then memorize everything. Make the list challenging to ensure the process is mentally stimulating.
Give it some time after, and try to recreate that list. Chances are you may leave some items off the list. That’s fine! Simply repeat the process till you can recall all the items on the list.
Wrapping up: Brain exercises boost memory and curb cognitive impairment
Whether you want to improve your memory now or be proactive in preventing cognitive impairment in old age, these brain health exercises can help.
Remember, if the brain exercise is easy, it’s not beneficial for the most part. Consistency, patience, and commitment are the three watchwords if you want maximum results.
We have pulled together the underlying concepts of these brain exercises and developed the Maximizing Memory course. The course is designed for students and professionals to help you memorize key information.