a woman walking

Aerobic exercise benefited older women’s brains.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver have uncovered yet another way that exercise is good for the brain. In a study of older women with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), the researchers found that regular aerobic exercise increased the volume of the hippocampus (a part of the brain that manages short- and long-term memory). The results emphasize the importance of aerobic exercise in maintaining a healthy brain and a strong memory.

Eighty-six women aged 70 to 80 participated in the study, exercising twice weekly for six months. There were three exercise programs: aerobic exercise training, resistance training, and balance and tone (BAT) training. The aerobics program involved walking with gradually increasing intensity, measured by the individual’s heart rate. The resistance training program comprised of exercises like bicep curls, calf raises, and more. In this program, women completed two short sets of each exercise, adding more weight once they became proficient at the current level. The control group participated in BAT training, which consisted of stretching and balance exercises, as well as relaxation techniques.

The women subjectively tracked the intensity of their workouts using Borg’s Rating of Perceived Exertion. The scientists analyzed the women’s brains using MRI scanning.

Women who completed the aerobic exercise regimen had a significantly higher increase in the volume of their hippocampus by the end of the trial compared to the BAT group. The researchers observed a four percent overall increase in hippocampal volume for the aerobics group. Resistance training did not result in a significant increase in hippocampal volume compared to the control group.

Other studies have demonstrated a link between greater hippocampal volume and improved performance on verbal memory testing. The authors of the present study think that the relationship between memory performance and hippocampal volume may be more complicated than expected because they observed poor performance on a memory learning test after the exercise trial. This could be because, although people gained hippocampal volume, the participants entered the study with deficits in verbal learning and memory. In short, “They would have more catching up to do,” reports Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PHD, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

This research is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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