If you’re looking for a better memory and a sharper edge to your intellectual abilities, an easy, five-minute exercise may do the trick.
According to research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, this exercise might also improve your heart health. And get this: It doesn’t require lifting weights or even taking a single step.
Elite cyclists and runners are already using this technique to improve their athletic endurance.
It’s a breathing exercise you can do without getting up from your chair…
This breathing activity with brain benefits is called “Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training” (IMST).
The exercise was devised back in the 1980s as a method for helping critically ill hospital patients get off of ventilators. You perform IMST by inhaling against resistance offered by a hand-held little gadget called an inspiratory muscle trainer – a device that makes you work harder to get air in and out of your lungs. The Colorado folks compare it to sucking through a straw that “sucks back.”
Strength Training for the Breathing Muscles
“IMST is basically strength-training for the muscles you breathe in with,” says researcher Daniel Craighead. “It’s something you can do quickly in your home or office, without having to change your clothes, and so far it looks like it is very beneficial to lower blood pressure and possibly boost cognitive and physical performance.”
In 2016, scientists at the University of Arizona investigated whether this device could help people suffering from sleep apnea – the condition that causes folks to stop breathing and then gasp for air periodically during the night. Those tests found that IMST increased restful sleep and, after six weeks, it significantly decreased blood pressure.
On the heels of that successful trial, the Colorado tests confirmed that using the technique for just five minutes a day reduces blood pressure and improves artery function.
The more you stick with it, the better it gets: After six weeks, people using IMST performed better on tests of their memory and cognition – though the cautious Colorado investigators say they need to study the brain effects more extensively before they can confirm this result.1
Breathe Like a Yogi
If you want to go old-school and improve your memory with ancient breathing exercises, studies now also show that breathing techniques that are more than 2,000 years old – the meditative breath control used in yoga and Buddhism – can help your brain.
Research in Ireland demonstrates that combining mindful meditation with controlled breathing influences the levels of noradrenaline in the brain. This messenger chemical, say the researchers, helps you focus and learn new information. It also increases in your brain when you have your opinions challenged, your curiosity aroused and your emotions provoked.
In their tests, the researchers analyzed the activity of a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus – where most of the brain’s noradrenaline is produced. They say that this part of the brain is key to successfully doing mental tasks that require focus and also controls breathing. By doing mindful breathing, the researchers say, we can modulate the release of noradrenaline from the locus coeruleus to optimize our memories and reasoning powers.2
“Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed, we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus,” says researcher Michael Melnychuk. “There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”
According to this research, mindful breathing helps you hit that “sweet spot.”
If you’d like to try out any of these techniques, you can find a mindful breathing exercise from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFSc7Ck0Ao0. And if you search on the Internet for “Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training,” you’ll find a variety of trainers for under $35. I haven’t tried any of these yet, so I can’t recommend any one in particular. But it’s not a complicated device so I suspect any of them should work just fine.