CALGARY — Want to shave a few years off? If you think aerobics is just about toning muscles and losing weight, think again! New research suggests that just six months of aerobic exercise may help rewire the brains of older adults to perform as well as they did at a younger age.
The University of Calgary study found that aerobic exercise pumps more blood to the brain, reaching areas of the brain involved in verbal fluency and executive function.
“As we all find out eventually, we lose a bit mentally and physically as we age. But even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to your brain may be immense,” says lead study author Marc J. Poulin, from the university’s Cumming School of Medicine, in an American Academy of Neurology release. “Our finding may be important, especially for older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias and brain disease.”
The 206 participants chosen for the study averaged 66 years of age and had no history of heart or memory problems. They had either exercised no more than two days a week at high intensity for 20 minutes or less per session, or had worked out no more than four days a week at moderate intensity for 30 minutes or less per session.
Participants completed thinking and memory tests at the beginning and end of the study. Ultrasounds at the beginning and end of the six-month period measured blood flow to the brain.
During the study, participants attended a supervised aerobic exercise program three days a week. Over the course of the study period, workout sessions were increased from an average of 20 minutes to an average of 40 minutes or more. Additionally, participants were asked to exercise outside of class once a week.
Researchers saw higher scores on participants’ thinking and memory tests at the end of the six-month study. Tests of executive function, which includes mental flexibility and self-correction, were up 5.7%. Verbal fluency, the ability to retrieve information, went up 2.4%.
“This change in verbal fluency is what you’d expect to see in someone five years younger,” Poulin remarked.
After six months of aerobic exercise, researchers found that the peak blood flow to the participants’ brains increased 2.8%, from an average of 51.3 centimeters/second to an average of 52.7 centimeters/second.
“Our study showed that six months’ worth of vigorous exercise may pump blood to regions of the brain that specifically improve your verbal skills as well as memory and mental sharpness,” said Poulin. “At a time when these results would be expected to be decreasing due to normal aging, to have these types of increases is exciting.”
Researchers caution that the study results are limited because there was no control group of adults who were not exercising, therefore other factors may have been involved in the results. Also, some of the exercise was unsupervised, so there is a risk that some self-reporting was unreliable.
With so many benefits to aerobic exercise, any time is a good time to get moving.
Study results are published in the May 13, 2020, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.