Would You Workout for a Better Memory?

In a new study, researchers found short, intense workouts can improve memory quickly. Might this finding be a better motivator than weight loss?

Would You Work out for a Better MemoryCanadian researchers recently found a close connection between exercise and memory. Could improving brain power be a more compelling reason to exercise than weight loss?

Anyone who's struggling to shed pounds or maintain a weight loss has heard it, over and over. Exercise.

Truth is, you need a lot of exercise to shed a little weight. So exercising for weight loss can become, well, a drag.

If you change your focus, you may discover more motivation, a new study suggests. Try focusing on memory improvement as the payoff, Canadian researchers suggest.

They recently reported that in as little as six weeks, exercisers who worked out intensely but briefly—20 minutes a session—had noticeable memory improvement.1

"People know that exercise is good for the body, but they still are not doing it," says Jennifer Heisz, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, who led the study. "If we promote it as good for the brain," she says, perhaps more people will get on board.

And, in her study, she did find it was good for the brain—specifically for what experts call high interference memory.

That's the type of memory skill you need every day, Dr. Heisz tells OnTrackDiabetes. It's what you use when you are trying to find your red car from a sea of similar-looking vehicles in a parking lot, or when you are trying to pick out a friend's face at a parade or other crowded venue.

The Workout to Remember: High Intensity, Short Duration

Dr. Heisz's team looked at high-intensity interval training. "We had 95 young adults who weren't exercising," Dr. Heisz says. "We enrolled them in a new program. '' They were healthy and young, ages 17 to 30.

They were assigned to one of three groups:

• Exercise training
• Exercise training plus cognitive training to improve memory
• A control group, which did not exercise or get cognitive training

Those in the exercise groups pedaled for one minute at high intensity followed by one minute at recovery speed. They did that 10 times, for a total of 20 minutes, over six weeks.

Those who got cognitive training worked on a computer program to improve memory three times a week for six weeks, for 20 minutes a session.

The team gave the men and women memory tests before and after. "The memory test we did is linked to hippocampal function, and the hippocampus is critical for learning and memory," Dr. Heisz tells OnTrackDiabetes.

The test is a tough one, she says. Participants, for instance, would study an image of an apple, then be shown another image of an apple and have to tell if it was the same or slightly different, such as being pictured at a different angle.

The researchers also took blood samples and measured a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. It supports the growth, function, and survival of brain cells.1

Which Group Did Best?

"Both exercise groups improved memory," Dr. Heisz says. Within the combined group that exercised and got cognitive training, the people who had the biggest fitness improvement had the biggest improvement in memory, she says. "I think the strongest result is that the exercise improved the memory," she says, regardless of the group.

While she expected the entire combined group that got both exercise and cognitive training to have memory improvement, ''it was only those who got the fitness gains," she says.

She can't quantify memory improvement—such as putting a percent improvement—but she clearly found a link or association.

The greater the fitness gains, the greater the increase in the BDNF, she says, and this growth factor supports the growth of brand new cells in the hippocampus. For those who didn’t get the fitness gains, she says, the exercise may have been too intense and perhaps inhibited the growth factor. The study is in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.1

Expert Views

"I think this study brings up an important additional benefit of exercise," says Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE, transitional program coordinator, Kovler Diabetes Center, Chicago, and an editorial board member for OnTrackDiabetes." Healthcare professionals fixate on the weight loss benefits of exercise, but they tend to leave out the amount required for actual weight loss. To burn 500 calories, a 198-pound person needs to do 2.5 hours of walking [at about 2 miles per hour], which is not always practical ."

It's time to focus on these other benefits, she suggests, to keep people motivated.

Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDE, CDN, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Long Island, and also an editorial board member, agrees. "It may be motivating and appealing to be able to do something on your own to improve your memory," she adds. "I would like to see more research in this area before being comfortable saying this is a cause-and-effect. (The authors agree.) In other words, being more physically active may not improve everyone's memory." Further research will be crucial and valuable, she says.

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