About the Study
Researchers divided 105 men and woman aged 70-77 into three groups. The first group did supervised exercise twice per week using high intensity interval training (HIIT), at a peak heart rate of 90%. The second performed moderate-intensity training with a 70% peak heart rate. The third group, which was a control, had at least 30 minutes daily activity but with a low intensity. Heart rate measurements were not taken.
After one, three, and five years of exercise, brain volume and cortical thickening–a measure that measures gray matter related to cognition–as also cardiorespiratory function and brain volume were measured.
1 The first year saw a significant increase in cardiorespiratory fitness for all three groups. However, brain tissue loss was less severe for those with higher fitness levels than those with lower fitness, while those who exercised more often experienced a greater improvement in working memory. This is according to Asta, PhD, study co-author and professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s department of neuromedicine and movement sciences.
Dr. Haberg says that there was one important aspect to improvement. It wasn’t related with heart rate or cortical thickness. It was whether participants felt in control of their choices. The most beneficial outcomes were found in those who could choose their exercise activity, the location they exercise, and whether they did so alone or with a buddy.
Haberg says, “Based on this, it is possible to speculate that more time spent physically active performing an activity selected by the individual is key for better brain health.” In healthy older adults, adherence to physical activity guidelines can have a significant cardiorespiratory impact.
Previous research has shown that this type of control can also be part of maintaining a regular exercise routine. It can help you have more fun with your workouts. One study found that half of exercise program participants quit within the first six months. However, those who experience positive emotions are more likely to stick with their programs for longer periods of time.
Why exercise is good for the brain
According to Santosh Kesari (MD, PhD), a neuroscientist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, California, there are many reasons exercise can have an impact on the brain.
Dr. Kesari explains that Aerobic exercise improves vascular integrity. This means it increases blood flow and function. Sedentary can increase your risk of cognitive problems because there isn’t enough circulation to the brain’s functions such as memory.
He also said that exercise can increase the growth of brain connections and reduce inflammation. Both can play a part in lowering age-related brain health risk.
In Preventive Medicine, cognitive decline is nearly twice as common in adults who are not physically active than in those who do. Researchers recommend encouraging physical activity to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.