High-intensity exercise can boost memory of elders by 30%, says study November 6, 2019 11:02

A new study discovered that workouts that are undertaken with high intensity tend to enhance memory among the elderly. It is the intensity of the exercise that is important. Those persons, especially seniors who took up short bursts of activity, experienced and displayed an improvement up to 30% in memory tasks.   

This could affect how dementia, a disease that is expected to rise over the next decade, gets treated. The study was published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. "There is 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," says Jennifer Heisz, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University and lead author of the study. "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 says.

The scientists studied dozens of sedentary, yet healthy older adults between 60 and 88. They were watched over 12 weeks, and then became part of three sessions every week. While some of the participants became part of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT), another control group undertook only stretching. Some high-intensity exercises for four minutes each were also conducted on a treadmill. This was proceeded by a recovery period. It was followed by another MICT protocol that included some moderate-intensity aerobic exercises stretching out for only 50 minutes.

In order to tap whatever improvements could take place in the memory, related to exercise, scientists also used a test that could probe the function of newborn neurons that have been generated by exercise. These could be more active than mature neurons. They are also important for setting up fresh connections and starting fresh memories. Scientists found that the older adults in the HIIT group had a substantial increase in high-interference memory compared to the MICT or control groups. That is a form of memory that can make us differentiate one item from another. Scientists found that when there are enhancements in fitness, they get in sync with performance in the memory.

"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, quickly adding that exercise should be modified to fit our fitness levels. "Exercise is a promising intervention for delaying the onset of dementia. However, guidelines for effective prevention do not exist. Our hope is this research will help form those guidelines," she said.