The Brainpower-Boosting Workout

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by Kristen Domonell October 31, 2012, 06:30 am EDT

1:3—it’s the magic ratio.
Want to blast fat and boost brainpower? Weight and interval training may strengthen your memory, according to new research from the University of Montreal.

Researchers had six study participants who were overweight or obese follow a four-month training plan that included two sessions of 40-minute high intensity interval training (also called HIIT), two 30-minute circuit weight training sessions, and one moderate intensity workout per week.

As you’d expect, subjects lost weight and waist circumference, lowered their insulin levels, and increased their maximum oxygen intake. The cool part: They also experienced a 10 to 25 percent improvement in brain functions like processing speed, recall, and short-term memory.

“This could explain why often when people train they say their minds are sharper,” says Anil Nigam, M.D., M.Sc., a preventative cardiologist at the Montreal Heart Institute and associate professor of medicine at the University of Montreal. (And on a related note, see How Being Fat Makes You Stupid.)

The researchers can’t be sure without a larger study (which is planned) that interval training, as opposed to exercise in general, is solely responsible for the improvements, but Dr. Nigam says his experience studying overweight and obese populations is that interval training shows results faster than continuous, moderate intensity exercise.

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Want to try it? Here’s a pointer: Start with a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio, suggests Boston-based strength coach Roger Lawson, C.S.C.S. For example, if you did jumping jacks for 30 seconds, you would then rest for 90 seconds before beginning again or moving on to the next exercise. If that’s too easy, reduce the ratio to 1:2.

“As a rule of thumb, if by the end of the rest period you’re not ready to perform the interval again without feeling like you’re going to die, then you’re using an inappropriate intensity,” Lawson says. “To solve this, either increase the rest duration or decrease how many seconds you’re exercising, or both, and see how you feel. You want these intervals to be difficult and doable, not impossible and demoralizing.”

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