Many people exercise in their younger years, but staying active is just as important later in life for improved physical health and memory. Researchers at McMaster University have examined the impact of exercise on the brain and have found that high-intensity workouts can improve memory in older adults.
The study published in the journal Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism outlines the importance of exercise in the treatment of dementia. There are approximately 47.5 million people worldwide who suffer from this catastrophic disease, and this number is expected to rise dramatically over the next decade.
Jennifer Heisz, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University and lead author of the new study spoke about the research, saying: “There is an urgent need for interventions that reduce dementia risk in healthy older adults. Only recently have we begun to appreciate the role that lifestyle plays, and the greatest modifying risk factor of all is physical activity.”
“This work will help to inform the public on exercise prescriptions for brain health, so they know exactly what types of exercises boost memory and keep dementia at bay,” she added.
The study looked at dozens of sedentary but otherwise healthy older adults between the ages of 60 and 88 who were monitored over a 12-week period. All participants took part in three exercise sessions per week. Some performed high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT). A separate control group engaged in stretching only.
The HIIT exercises included four sets of high-intensity exercise on a treadmill for four minutes. This was followed by a recovery period. The MICT exercises included one set of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. To gage the exercise-related improvements in memory, researchers tested participants using a device that taps into the function of the newborn neurons generated by exercise. These specific neurons are more active than mature ones and are ideal for forming new connections and creating new memories.
Increase in High-Interference Memory
The research found that older adults in the HIIT group had a substantial increase in high-interference memory compared to the MICT or control groups. This type of memory allows the brain to distinguish from one object to another, recognizing characteristics such as color or form.
The study also found that improvements in fitness levels directly correlated with improvements in memory performance. This goes to show that exercise intensity is critical. Seniors who exercised using short bursts of activity saw an improvement of up to 30% in memory performance, while participants who worked out moderately saw no improvement, on average.
“It’s never too late to get the brain health benefits of being physically active, but if you are starting late and want to see results fast, our research suggests you may need to increase the intensity of your exercise,” says Heisz.
Participants in the program were monitored closely by health care professionals, so Heisz cautions those wanting to try HIIT must tailor exercises to their current fitness levels. Adding intensity to a daily workout can be as simple as adding hills to a walk or increasing pace between streetlamps during the walk.