Can an Interval Walk a Day Keep Dementia at Bay?
How to exercise for better brain health.
Posted March 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Aging does not equal dementia.
- Physical inactivity contributes to dementia risk as much as genetics.
- Interval walking improves memory and increases fitness, and therefore can reduce your risk of dementia.
To many, dementia has become synonymous with aging. People are terrified of it—and for good reason. Alzheimer’s disease has the power to strip you of your personal past to the point that you forget who you are.
But aging does not equal dementia, and you have more control over your brain’s health than you may think. In my new book Move the Body, Heal the Mind, I describe the latest research on the neuroscience of exercise, including fascinating yet simple ways to keep your brain young.
Genetics vs. Lifestyle: Which Matters More?
You may have inherited an unhealthy set of genes that increase your risk of dementia—but that doesn't guarantee your fate. The apolipoprotein (APOE) gene has different versions and its e4 version increases your risk of dementia. About one in four people inherit this unhealthy version, but it does not mean they will get dementia.
Nor does it mean that people with a healthy version are totally protected. Why? Because lifestyle matters too, and it matters more than you may think. Research from my lab has shown that being physically inactive can completely negate a healthy set of genes. Across 1,600 older adults, we found that those who were inactive had a similar risk of developing dementia as those who were genetically predisposed. The results suggest that your activity level contributes to your dementia risk as much as genetics. You can’t change your genes, but you can change your lifestyle!
Physical Fitness Reduces Dementia Risk
Higher fitness in midlife protects you against dementia later in life. One study demonstrated this by recruiting over 2,000 middle-aged men. At baseline, the men were grouped according to their relative fitness level. Then over the next 22 years, the researchers tracked who developed dementia. Dementia risk was nearly twice as high for the lower fit than the higher fit. Similar results have been observed for women too.
How Do I Increase My Fitness to Prevent Dementia?
Depending on your current fitness level, walking may do. But if you’re already a regular walker, then you may need to step it up. How? With intervals.
- Walk for 3 minutes at an easy pace.
- Walk for 3 minutes at a faster pace.
- Repeat five times.
Interval walking is better than regular walking when it comes to increasing low fitness, decreasing high blood pressure, and improving blood sugar regulation for people with type 2 diabetes. The best part? Interval walking has been shown to improve memory, too.
Interval Walking for Better Memory
We tested the benefits of interval walking for memory by enrolling 64 sedentary but cognitively healthy seniors in our community-based program held at our local seniors’ gym called the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE). Exercise sessions were supervised, three times per week for 12 weeks.
As the participants’ fitness improved, we increased the speed or incline of the treadmill to achieve the target intensity. After just 12 weeks of interval walking, the seniors’ memory had improved by 30 percent, and their better memory was directly related to their fitness gains. The same memory improvements were not seen for the seniors who walked regularly or engaged in light stretching.
Transform your regular walk into an interval walk. How? Simply pick up your pace between light posts or add a few hills to your regular route. During the harder intervals, you’ll know you’re working hard enough when it becomes difficult for you to carry on a conversation; researchers call this the Talk Test. In no time, you’ll be moving faster and remembering more.
Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes. Always check with a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise program.
Fenesi, B., Fang, H., Kovacevic, A., Oremus, M., Raina, P., & Heisz, J. J. (2017). Physical exercise moderates the relationship of apolipoprotein E (APOE) genotype and dementia risk: a population-based study. Journal of Alzheimer's disease, 56(1), 297-303.
Kovacevic, A., Fenesi, B., Paolucci, E., & Heisz, J. J. (2020). The effects of aerobic exercise intensity on memory in older adults. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 45(6), 591-600.
Kurl, S., Laukkanen, J., Lonnroos, E., Remes, A., & Soininen, H. (2018). Cardiorespiratory fitness and risk of dementia: a prospective population-based cohort study. Age and Ageing, 47(4), 611-614.