Seniors improve memory with high-intensity exercise

New research has found that high-intensity exercise may improve memory in seniors.

These results may have implications for treating dementia and other cognitive diseases.

Dementia is the single biggest cause of disability in Australians aged 65 or older. Almost half a million Australians are living with the disease in 2019.

Researchers at Canada’s McMaster University looked at the effects of aerobic exercise on both memory and general cognitive abilities.

This research built on a previous study from the same team, which similarly found a link between exercise and memory.

“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,” said Jennifer Heisz, lead author of the study.

The study

The study involved 64 sedentary older adults aged between 60-88 who were divided into one of three groups.

The first group performed high-intensity interval training; the second moderate-intensity continuous training. The third group was a control group that did stretching.

Both before and after the experiment, the seniors completed memory and executive function tests to assess their level of cognitive ability.

The groups performed exercise three times a week over a 12-week period.

The HIIT group’s exercise regime consisted of four sets of high-intensity running on a treadmill for four minutes, then a rest period.

The moderate-intensity group, by contrast, did a single set of aerobic exercise for 50 minutes.


The results showed that HIIT led to better memory performance compared to the other two groups. The researchers also found that the better someone’s fitness, the more their memory improved.

The seniors in the high-intensity group had a memory improvement of up to 30 per cent more than those who worked out moderately.

However, exercise intensity did not matter as much when it came to other cognitive functions.


This study contributes to the growing research that exercise is beneficial for cognitive abilities, especially in older people.

“There is urgent need for interventions that reduce dementia risk in healthy older adults,” Professor Heisz said.

“Only recently have we begun to appreciate the role that lifestyle plays, and the greatest modifying risk factor of all is physical activity.”

It’s never too late to benefit from exercise. If you’re new to fitness, simply increasing the intensity might be as simple as walking uphill or at a faster pace.

For more information on improvements in healthcare and fitness for the aging population, visit our previous blog on active aging.


Kovacevic, A. et al. (2019.) ‘The effects of aerobic exercise intensity on memory in older adults.’ Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Published on the web 30 October 2019.

Image credit: Paulina Rzeczkowska

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