By Emily Woodruff | January 30th, 2019
It’s usually not until the later decades that adults start worrying about memory loss. But everyone, even 20-year-olds, can relate to feeling like their memory just isn’t what it used to be.
But what if you could turn back the clock on your brain’s capacity by 10 or even 20 years? Researchers from Columbia University in the City of New York studying the effect of exercise on the brain say it’s possible with one simple, free change to your lifestyle: aerobic exercise.
Participants between the ages of 20 and 67 without memory problems signed up for the study, which involved a random assignment of either aerobic exercise (think: the elliptical, treadmill or stationary bike) or a stretching and toning regimen for six months. All of the people tested in the study were considered to have “below-average fitness” at the start of the study and did not exercise.
Participants were given access to a fitness center and coaches who monitored their progress. Those who were in the aerobic group used their own heart rates as a guide for how much to push themselves, starting at an intensity that gradually increased from 55 percent of their maximum heart rate during week one to 75 percent of their maximum heart rate by week five, where the intensity level remained for the next five months.
Going from a sedentary lifestyle to 75 percent maximum heart rate isn’t as difficult as it sounds in the long run. According to study author Yaakov Stern, Ph.D., participants worked out for 30 to 40 minutes, with a 10 to 15 minutes warm up and cool down. “By the time they got to 75 percent, they could do the exercise without being winded,” said Stern.
When researchers compared the brain scans and cognitive tests of the participants in both the aerobic and stretching group, they saw that while thickness in the brain increased in both groups over six months, those in the aerobic group also significantly improved on their thinking skills test. That test measures executive function, or the ability to make decisions, reason and multitask—some of the first skills stolen by diseases like dementia.
The aerobic group was able to improve thinking skills by .50 points compared to .25 points in the stretching group. The difference in thinking skill scores only widened as the participants went up in age.
“The people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60,” Stern said.
The study was small, however, with just 132 participants. Larger and longer studies are needed to confirm the findings.
“Since thinking skills at the start of the study were poorer for participants who were older, our findings suggest that aerobic exercise is more likely to improve age-related declines in thinking skills rather than improve performance in those without a decline,” he added.
But all adults, even the 20-year-olds, experienced an increase in the thickness of the left frontal outer layer of the brain.
“Our research confirms that exercise can be beneficial to adults of any age,” said Stern. The study was published in the journal Neurology.