Whether you’re dealing with a cognitive impairment or just realize that you’re not as sharp as you used to be, age-related memory loss can be a real downer. Luckily, however, science is always providing us with new solutions for protecting our brains. Most recently, a study out of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada found that high-intensity cardio exercise could boost memory as much as 30 percent!
For the study, researchers observed a group of 64 seniors aged 60 to 88 years for a 12-week period. They were divided into three groups: the first group did moderate aerobic exercise which raised their heart-rates up to 70 to 75 percent of the maximum for their age group, the second group did high-intensity interval treadmill (HIIT) workouts which raised their heart-rate to between 90 and 95 percent of the maximum for shorter bursts of time, and the third group did more gentle, stretching exercises. Each group was tested three times per week and also given memory tests.
The researchers aimed to find out which type of exercise could improve memory function and possibly ward off dementia. The seniors studied were all in good health otherwise, though they reported sedentary lifestyles before the study. Interestingly enough, the results showed that those in the high-intensity group experienced the most significant increase in scores on the memory tests by the end of the trial, specifically in regards to high-interference memory. “The test looks at the ability to remember the details of new memories without mixing things up,” lead author of the study, Jennifer Heisz, said in a press release. “For example, if you meet two new people today, it is important to not mix up their names or personal information, or to remember that you took your medicine yesterday rather than today.”
This study supports a growing body of research which suggests that exercise is a great way to improve cognitive function and keep the brain's memory processes working properly as time goes along. “Physical activity is the greatest modifiable risk factor for dementia," said Heisz. "This is a very important message for public health given that most people are not at a genetic risk."
So how much exercise, exactly, do you need to do? For this study, subjects exercised three times per week, and the HIIT group performed four sets of high-intensity exercise on a treadmill for four minutes, followed by a recovery period. The key with interval training is raising the heart rate to almost max capacity for a short burst of time, then taking a recovery period to reduce the heart rate before moving to the next set.
And if getting on a treadmill isn’t your idea of fun, there’s good news. You don’t have to do some crazy intense exercise that is clearly outside of your fitness level to reap the benefits. If you typically get out for a daily walk, try adding in a few hills or short bursts of jogging to your route. Whatever your preferred way to move is, it’s best to add intensity based on your current fitness level. “I always recommend that people do what they love because that means they will be more likely to do it! 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," Heisz said. With that in mind, make sure to get your doctors OK before trying any new fitness regimen.