Exercise of all types from running to weight training can improve memory in young healthy people. Eight weeks of regular exercise – either high intensity strength and aerobic training or simply co-ordination, balance and agility exercises can improve working memory and cognitive ability in older people as well.
A recent study compared healthy participants 60-85 years old who did 60 minutes of high intensity exercise training or low intensity exercises three times a week for eight weeks. Those who did high intensity exercise were fitter and stronger at the end of the eight weeks than the people who did the low intensity exercises. This increase in fitness meant that the high intensity groups used less energy to walk at a certain pace. So they had more potential energy: the superfluous amount of energy generated in the body above and beyond the energy needed just to stay alive. This is not a surprising result. What is surprising is that all groups had the same improvement in working memory and cognitive ability in a test where they had to think up random numbers and say one number each second for 100 seconds.
It was previously thought that aerobic exercise improves cognition by increasing oxygen uptake and potential energy in the body. This study shows that is not the way that exercise improves cognition. So more gentle exercise plans that target flexibility, balance and relaxation might offer similar brain benefits to high intensity exercise.
The Scientific Paper:
Berryman et al. Multiple roads lead to Rome: combined high-intensity aerobic and strength training vs. gross motor activities leads to equivalent improvement in executive functions in a cohort of healthy older adults. Age. 2014.