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Can High-Intensity Exercise Improve Your Memory?

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A recent study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism has some very exciting findings in the fight against memory loss and dementia. I probably don’t need to tell you how debilitating dementia can be if you’ve experienced it with someone you care about. If you haven’t, count yourself lucky.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that around 50 million people worldwide have dementia. Nearly 60 percent live in low- and middle-income countries. Every year, there are nearly 10 million new cases. And to make matters worse, the total number of people with dementia is projected to reach 82 million in 2030 and 152 million by 2050. 

Currently, there’s no treatment or cure for dementia or even a way to alter its progression. That makes preventative treatments, such as the study I’m focussing on today, even more exciting. Thankfully, numerous new treatments are being investigated, which are at various stages of clinical trials. So it’s not all doom and gloom.

Although there is no cure, there are several things that can be done to support and improve the lives of individuals who have dementia, including (from the WHO):

  • Early diagnosis in order to promote early and optimal management
  • Optimizing physical health, cognition, activity and well-being
  • Identifying and treating accompanying physical illness
  • Detecting and treating challenging behavioral and psychological symptoms
  • Providing information and long-term support to carers

And, as I am focussing on today, movement and exercise play a role in brain health. 

Exercise and your brain

Exercise affects the brain in many ways. To start with, exercise generally increases your heart rate, which in turn pumps more oxygen to the brain. Exercise aids the release of hormones, which provide an excellent environment for the growth of new brain cells. Exercise also promotes brain plasticity by stimulating the growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain. Research from UCLA even demonstrated that exercise increased growth factors in the brain, which makes it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections.

While researchers are still trying to determine the exact critical factors that make exercise so good for the brain, the focus seems to be narrowing in on increased blood flow to the brain, surges of growth hormones, and massive expansion of the brain’s network of blood vessels.

Canadian researchers at McMaster University examined the impact of exercise on the brain. Their new study suggests that the intensity at which we get more movement and exercise in our lives is critical. In their research, they found that seniors who exercised using “short bursts of activity” saw an improvement of up to 30 percent in their memory performance, while participants who worked out at a steady-state, moderate level saw no improvement.

Jennifer Heisz, the lead author of the study, quoted in Science Daily, says, “There is urgent need for interventions that reduce dementia risk in healthy older adults … 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.”

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