A study from the Montreal Heart Institute indicates that high-intensity interval training not only makes middle-aged people healthier, but also increases their cognitive function.
After a four-month program of interval and resistance training, study participants not only lost an average of about three inches in waist circumference and an average of about eight pounds, but also increased VO2 max, insulin sensitivity and cognitive function.
With cognitive function, researchers recorded a 10 to 25 percent improvement in attention, flexibility (the ability to change from one task to another), inhibition (the ability to stop thinking about something), processing speed (the ability to make a quick decision), short-term memory and recall, said Dr. Anil Nigam, the chief of clinical care service at MHI who headed the study.
Adult overweight to obese participants were required to do interval training twice a week and resistance training twice a week. Before and after the program, participants underwent an extensive series of tests to measure cognitive functions, body composition, cardiovascular risk, maximal aerobic capacity and brain oxygenation during exercise, according to Nigam.
Cognitive tests included tasks such as remembering pairs of numbers and symbols. In addition, researchers could actually see what happened in the brain thanks to near-infrared spectroscopy. In this technique, light in the near-infra red range is sent through human tissue and reacts with oxygen in the blood. In this way, researchers can detect minute changes in the volume and oxygenation of blood based on light absorption.
Because of the small sample size, Nigam said this round of testing was a pilot study.
"We are encouraged that what we observed is actually real and we hope to demonstrate it in a larger population," he said. If the findings are correct, they indicate that exercise is the only way to both decrease cardiovascular risk and increase cognitive function.
For this reason, scientists believe many people could benefit from following a similar training program. They will present their findings at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Toronto in late October.