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by Candy Sagon
Updated July 8, 2022
Aerobic exercise — the kind that makes you breathe harder and gets your heart pumping out more oxygen-carrying blood with every beat — may play an important role in improving your thinking and memory skills.
Two studies suggest that participants who did aerobic exercise several times a week for several months performed better on certain mental tests. Brain scans taken at the beginning and end of each study also showed blood flow to the brain had increased.
What studies like these suggest is that increased blood flow from aerobic exercise is linked to reduced risk of memory loss, said Binu Thomas, a senior researcher in neuroimaging at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and coauthor of one of the studies. “By adding as little as four weeks of exercise, you start seeing cardiorespiratory fitness improvement, which is definitely beneficial for brain function.”
Even for those whose memory has started to fade and are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease, they can still do something about it by adding aerobic exercise to their lifestyle, he said.
In the University of Texas study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Thomas and his colleagues studied 30 participants, age 60 or older, with mild memory problems. Half underwent 12 months of aerobic exercise training — meaning exercise that significantly raised their heart rate — while the rest did only stretching.
In both groups, each participant was trained and supervised individually, to avoid any group social influence during training. Participants did their activity — either aerobic exercise or stretching — three times a week for 25 to 30 minutes in the beginning, eventually increasing to four to five times a week for 30 to 40 minutes.
The researchers used brain scans to map changes in blood flow after a year of aerobic workouts. They found that exercise improved blood flow to two key regions of the brain associated with memory.
The exercise group also showed a 47 percent improvement in some memory scores after a year, compared with minimal change in the stretching group, researchers reported.
Although the study participants already had mild memory problems, Thomas said this type of exercise should also help older adults who want to protect against slowed memory and thinking as they age. “If they were to perform exercise for one year, I would expect similar benefits in brain function,” he said in an email.
In a second study looking at the benefits of aerobic exercise, Canadian researchers studied 206 adults, average age 66, who didn’t get much physical activity and who had no history of heart or memory problems.
The participants were enrolled in a supervised six-month aerobic exercise program held three days a week, plus did one workout on their own once a week. Exercise sessions increased from 20 minutes to 40 minutes as the study progressed. Participants were also given thinking and memory tests and brain scans at the beginning and end of the study to assess changes.
The researchers found that after six months of exercise, participants improved by nearly 6 percent on tests of what researchers call executive function (the ability to do things like plan, organize and manage time) and 2.4 percent on tests of how quickly they can produce certain information — for example, reciting words beginning with a given letter in a limited amount of time.
The results, study author Marc Poulin of the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, said in a statement, showed that “even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to you brain may be immense.”
“This change in verbal fluency is what you’d expect to see in someone five years younger,” Poulin said.
In addition, participants’ blood flow to the brain also increased, ultrasound scans showed, which suggests that aerobic exercise may be linked to improvements in memory and mental acuity, he said.
One limitation to this study: There was no control group that was not exercising, or exercising at a low intensity, with which the aerobic group’s results could be compared.
The study was published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
What you should know:
• “Brain Perfusion Change in Patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment After 12 Months of Aerobic Exercise Training,” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, May 2020. Read a summary of the study described above. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Aerobic exercise improves cognition and cerebrovascular regulation in older adults,” Neurology, May 2020. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)