High-intensity exercise may be the best option for quickly boosting memory capacity in late life, say researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

Study participants who exercised in short bursts of activity improved memory performance by up to 30%, reported lead author and kinesthesiologist Jennifer Heisz. In contrast, a moderate-exercise cohort on average saw no improvement at all, she said.

Participants included dozens of sedentary but otherwise healthy older adults between the ages of 60 and 88. They were monitored for 12 weeks while participating in three weekly exercise sessions of either high-intensity interval training or moderate-intensity continuous training. A control group engaged in stretching only.

Results showed that adults in the high-intensity group had a substantial increase in the type of memory that is ideal for forming new connections and creating new memories. In addition, improvements in fitness levels were directly linked to improvement in memory performance, Heisz reported. 

“It’s never too late to get the brain health benefits of being physically active, but if you are starting late and want to see results fast, our research suggests you may need to increase the intensity of your exercise,” said Heisz.

The study was published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.