Senior Memory Improves With High-Intensity Exercise

Granny and gramps get smarter when they go hardcore at the gym. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration. What’s true, though, is that McMaster University researchers have found that high-intensity workouts give older adults a measurable memory boost.

But if they want the benefits, they’ll need to go hard. Intensity is critical, according to the researchers. Seniors who exercised in short, intense bursts of activity enjoyed memory performance improvements of up to 30% over those who exercised at a moderate intensity. The “moderate” group got bupkus for memory improvement. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

These findings have widespread implications, including in treatment of neurological disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Dementia alone affects over half a million Canadians and will hit approximately 7.3 million Americans in 2020, according to new reports just released. The research on high-intensity exercise and memory was published in the journal 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.

Researchers used three groups for their study. All groups exercised for three sessions a week over a 12-week period. One group did high-intensity interval training (HIIT,) one did moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) and the control group did stretching only.

Participants were sedentary but otherwise healthy older adults between the ages of 60 and 88. A total of 64 people took part in the study.

The HIIT program was based on four sets of high-intensity treadmill exercise for four minutes, with a recovery period. The MICT protocol was one steady-state, moderate-intensity treadmill session for nearly 50 minutes.


Using a specific test, researchers were able track exercise-related memory improvements by tapping into the function of newborn neurons generated by exercise. These neurons are more active than mature ones and thereby ideal for forming new neuronal connections and creating new memories.

They also looked for increases in brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF,) a brain chemical associated with improvements in memory and cognition. No significant differences between groups were observed.

However, the older adults in the HIIT group had a substantial increase in high-interference memory compared to the other groups. High-interference memory allows distinguish between items that are similar in nature, but have other differences. Distinguishing one care from another of the same make or model is an example of this.

The researchers stated without hesitation that improvements in fitness levels correlate directly with memory performance improvement.

“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.

Heisz cautions that grandma and grandpa shouldn’t go from slow walks on the treadmill to training for the Crossfit games just to be able to remember things better. Increases in intensity can be gained by simple things like adding some hills to a walk or picking up the pace.

“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.”

This study is one more in a growing body of evidence that says exercise is good for the brain. This study also says that getting after it in the gym, on the road or elsewhere will also help you boost your memory as you age.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Ana Kovacevic, Barbara Fenesi, Emily Paolucci, Jennifer J. Heisz. The effects of aerobic exercise intensity on memory in older adults. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2019

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