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High-Intensity Exercise Found to Improve Memory in Elderly

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 4, 2023

The benefits of exercise are manifold: Better cardiovascular health, reduced risk of cancer, stronger joints and bones, and even a more positive mood are just some of the ways physical fitness can improve your quality of life. Studies have shown that exercise can help fight dementia as well, a disease that affects millions of seniors around the world and currently has no cure.


But new research has found that some types of exercise are superior to others when it comes to boosting brain function. A recent study has found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can improve memory performance in older adults.


The study


Researchers at McMaster University recruited 64 older men and women aged 60 to 88 who had been mostly sedentary prior to the study. The participants were divided into three groups: A HIIT group, a moderate continuous training (MCT) group, and a control group, who only performed stretching exercises. All participants underwent a memory function test before the study. 


The HIIT group engaged in four sets of high-intensity treadmill exercise for four minutes, in addition to numerous cooldown periods where they walked for several minutes. Their total workout duration was 43 minutes. The MCT group walked continuously for 47 minutes for a total workout duration of 52 minutes, including cooldowns. The control group took part in a 30-minute stretching session. 


At the study’s close, the researchers found that the participants in the HIIT group had substantially better memory than the adults in the other two groups. In fact, those who engaged in moderate-intensity exercise were found to have no memory improvement at all. The researchers suggested that changes in the way the body utilizes oxygen during exercise may be responsible for the results.


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Dementia - Dietary and Exercise Plan

Dementia - Dietary and Exercise Plan

Increasing exercise intensity 


“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,” said 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.”


Don’t worry — you don’t need to start running marathons instead of doing your morning walk. Try just increasing your walking speed, for instance, or take an uphill route next time. If you work out at a gym, bump up your pace on the treadmill. Even these minor changes can put you on the right track to staving off dementia and ensuring your memory stays sharp well into old age.


Written by Natan Rosenfeld

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