The effects of aerobic exercise intensity on memory in older adults

Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2020 Jun;45(6):591-600. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2019-0495. Epub 2019 Oct 30.


Aerobic exercise may enhance memory in older adults. However, the optimal intensity and underlying mechanism are unclear. This community-based study examined the effect of aerobic exercise intensity on memory and general cognitive abilities. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was examined as a potential mechanism. Sixty-four sedentary older adults participated in 1 of 3 groups: (i) high-intensity interval training (HIIT); (ii) moderate continuous training (MCT); or (iii) stretching control (CON). Prior to and following the intervention, high-interference memory was assessed using a Mnemonic Similarity task and executive functions were assessed using Go Nogo and Flanker tasks. HIIT led to the greatest memory performance compared with MCT and CON (F[2,55] = 6.04, p = 0.004) and greater improvements in memory correlated with greater increases in fitness (rs (46) = 0.27, p = 0.03). Exercise intensity seemed to matter less for executive functioning, as positive trends were observed for both HIIT and MCT. No significant differences in BDNF were found between groups. Overall, these results suggest that aerobic exercise may enhance memory in older adults, with the potential for higher intensity exercise to yield the greatest benefit. While our findings suggest that BDNF does not regulate these adaptations, the mechanisms remain to be determined. Novelty High-intensity interval training results in the greatest memory performance in inactive older adults compared with moderate continuous training or stretching. Improvement in fitness correlates with improvement in memory performance.

Keywords: BDNF; activité physique; aging; cognition; entraînement par intervalles de haute intensité; executive functions; exercice; exercise; fonctions exécutives; high-intensity interval training; memory; mémoire; physical activity; vieillissement.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / blood
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Female
  • High-Intensity Interval Training*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Middle Aged


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • BDNF protein, human