Research Chat

Can High-Intensity Exercise Help Navigation?

Episode Summary

This episode interviews Gabe Massarotto, (he/him) a Masters candidate in the Department of Kinesiology at Laurier. His research focuses on the effect of high-intensity exercise on learning and memory. This research, which uses 3D technology to test memory recall, may help explain why high-intensity exercise can benefit memory and navigation recall.

Episode Notes

The episode features:

Episode Transcription


WLU Research Chat S03 Gabe

Unknown  00:00

[jingle plays]


Shawna Reibling  00:04

Welcome to the third season of Research Chat. In this season graduate students share the challenges of their research work. In this episode, Seth McCarthy will interview Gabe Massarotto. First I'd like to introduce them to you. 


Shawna Reibling  00:17

Seth McCarthy, who uses pronouns he/him is an exercise physiologist and nutrition researcher who's pursuing a PhD in Kinesiology at Wilfrid Laurier University. A specialist in appetite regulation and how it is affected by exercise, Seth has over five years of experience working in the Energy Metabolism Research Laboratory, supervised by Dr. Tom Hazel. While Seht's work is mainly focused on improving our understanding of exercise induced appetite suppression in the hopes of using exercise to suppress appetite and lead to weight loss. He has also studied how exercise affects post-exercise metabolism and blood pressure, as well as how different types of exercise training can improve fitness in adults. Seth received his Bachelor of Human Kinetics from the University of Windsor in 2018 and his master's of Kinesiology from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2020. He currently holds the Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship at the doctoral level from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. He has previously held the Canadian Institute of Health Research Canada Graduate Scholarship at the masters level, as well as an Ontario Graduate Scholarship at the Masters and Doctoral levels. In addition to assess research ventures, he has worked as a contract teaching faculty member in the Department of Kinesiology and physical education at Wilfrid Laurier University teaching exercise nutrition to third and fourth year undergraduate students as well as speaking to different audiences about exercise and nutrition. 


Shawna Reibling  01:43

Gabrielle Massarotto, who uses pronouns he/him is a current Masters of Science in Kinesiology student at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he also received his Bachelor of Kinesiology. His primary research interest is exploring the effect of exercise on functions of the brain such as memory and learning. He was awarded two Undergraduate Student Research Awards, which allowed him to incomplete research projects during his undergraduate degree. One project included conducting a literature search regarding the effect of various types of exercise on the health and functioning of individuals diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Gabriel is actively involved in the community working alongside organizations that provide physical activity programming to populations experiencing cognitive and or physical impairments in their everyday lives. He previously worked at supporting neurodiversity through adaptive programming or SNAP, which is a support program affiliated with Brock University. At SNAP developmentally appropriate physical activity programs are designed and then administered to children and youth with disabilities. In addition, Gabriel is currently working with the Alzheimer's Society. The Alzheimer's Society, like SNAP, encourages individuals who experienced cognitive impairments to become physically active through their Minds in Motion program while connecting with their peers to enhance overall well being. Gabriel hopes to further his education and practical experiences in the Rehabilitation Sciences to assist individuals living with disabilities. 


Shawna Reibling  03:10

Welcome to you both to Research Chat. Thank you for chatting today about exercise and how important it is to a healthy life and can be used as a tool for shaping your life. Seth McCarthy's research is focused on how exercise affects appetite, while Gabe Massarotto's research explores how exercise can help your brain work better combat memory loss and promote learning. 


Shawna Reibling  03:31

To find out more about your research, I will turn the microphone over to Seth McCarthy, who will interview Gabe Massarotto about his research.


Shawna Reibling  03:41

[jingle plays]


Seth McCarthy  03:44

Alright, thank you for the introduction, Shawna. Hi, Gabe. Thanks for chatting with me today about your research.


Gabe Massarotto  03:51

Thank you for joining and thanks for having me.


Seth  03:53

All right, to get started. Can you tell me a little bit about the research group that you're a part of and how your work fits into that research program?


Gabe Massarotto  04:01

Yeah, most definitely. So I'm currently working alongside Dr. Michael Cinnelli and Dr. Tom Hazel - Mike and Tom. Therefore, to conduct my unique research project. I'm a part of both of their labs. So I essentially spent some of my time working in the Lifespan Psychomotor Behavior laboratory, as well as the Energy Metabolism Research Laboratory. Although my research project fits in the confines of Tom's expertise, I am most certainly pushing Mike's boundaries. It's kind of funny because when I was first having conversations with Mike and Tom, about potentially pursuing a master's degree and a potential research project idea, I distinctly remember Mike mentioning to me that my interests are not exactly quote unquote, in his wheelhouse. I've always wanted to branch exercise physiology and the cognitive sciences, and luckily was able to convince Mike to conduct such a unique project. Although a previous student in Mike's lab conducted a very similar project, I wanted to further their methods and complete some thing that has never been done before. I wanted to tackle the why. 


Seth McCarthy  05:04

Awesome, thanks Gabe. So just to kind of build off that, what question do you plan to explore in your research?


Gabe Massarotto  05:12

In simple words, I will investigate the effect of high intensity exercise on functions of the brain, such as learning and memory. It is evident in research that high intensity exercise is most beneficial to learning and memory when compared with exercise of low intensity. Now, you're probably wondering, Well, what exactly is high intensity exercise? Simply put, high intensity exercise is any form of exercise that elevates your heart rate significantly, and can only be sustained for short periods of time. However, what remains unclear in research is why does high intensity exercise benefit memory and learning but low intensity does not? Therefore, going back to your original question, my question that I will explore is, does lactate generation play a role in spatial learning and memory, which is a very, very unique form of memory? I'm sure you're familiar with memory in the sense that it is our ability to recall something. Spatial memory is the ability to formulate a route to a specific destination based on previous experience. So essentially, a recall. So for example, let's say you have walked to the local Tim Hortons from your house a week ago for the very first time. Now, today, you want to walk back. Our spatial memory allows us to remember where we need to turn and how long we need to walk before making that turn. In other words, spatial memory is the brain's own global positioning system or GPS.


Seth McCarthy  06:41

All right, thanks, Gabe. One thing I noticed you mentioned there was lactate. Do you mind just elaborating on that a little bit more in describing what lactate is?


Gabe Massarotto  06:49

For sure! So just to orient you, and obviously orient the audience, I'm sure that you have once heard or experienced yourself, after exercising vigorously, you typically feel pain or burning sensation. You're probably also told that this pain was attributed to something called lactate. Although this was believed in research, newer research suggests that lactate does not play a role in this pain, it is actually due to micro tears in your muscles. Now that I've somewhat oriented the audience, I can discuss what lactate is and what it does. Lactate is a substance that is produced within our bodies and is used as an energy source. Although lactate is produced at rest, lactate is produced in greater quantities when oxygen levels are low within our bodies. Our body requires oxygen to survive but when we are working out at high intensities, we use more oxygen than we can take in. When we are in this state of low oxygen, our body converts glucose, which essentially is sugar to something called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is a very crucial source of energy. In the brain, lactate is also used as an energy source, but also assists with cell to cell communication. Additionally, it is believed that lactate initiates a cascade of events, which evokes a positive response, resulting in perceived improvements in spatial learning and memory. And this is what led me to my research project.


Seth McCarthy  08:15

Thanks, Gabe. Now, you've nicely set up what your research question isn't what you're looking to explore. Now, would you mind describing to me how you're going to conduct your research and what kind of methodology you'll be using? 


Gabe Massarotto  08:26

For sure. So assessing the effect of high intensity exercise on spatial memory is relatively simple. You essentially have participants complete a spatial memory task prior to and following exercise, and see if there's any improvement between the two time points. If an individual performs better following exercise, this may be a good indicator that exercise can enhance spatial memory. For my particular project, participants will complete the spatial memory task in a virtual reality maze. Virtual reality is necessary for my type of research because it would take a lot of time, money and space to construct a maze in the real world. The maze that I will use will look relatively similar to the corn mazes that you would expect to see at a pumpkin patch. Participants will be instructed to navigate through the maze to locate several objects from various start locations as quickly as possible. For me, I am interested in determining if an individual can locate the objects quicker following exercise. If so, this may suggest that exercise can improve spatial memory. In addition to assessing spatial memory performance, I will also be analyzing lactate levels in the body. Now, in order to do that, you must draw blood from an individual and use lactate test kit to determine the concentration of lactate. If high levels are reported when an individual is performing well. This may suggest that lactate plays a role in spatial memory.


Seth McCarthy  09:52

Thanks for elaborating on that Gabe. Now that you've described your research question and the way that you'll be conducting your research it does sound fairly complex. Do you mind elaborating on some different challenges that you face throughout your research, both as a graduate student, but also during your actual data collection and experimentation?


Gabe Massarotto  10:09

Sure. So I'll first start off with grad school. So when I first started grad school at a very difficult time adjusting to the lifestyle of graduate student, since I recently completed my undergraduate degree, and finally felt like I understood how to excel in a university environment, I thought that I would be able to tackle grad school with ease. But I was wrong. I soon became overwhelmed with everything. Not only was I enrolled in several courses, but now I had to teach, I had to volunteer, I had to attend numerous meetings a week, I had to respond to to countless emails, and I had to start my research project. I essentially called my brother, who was also in grad school, years ahead of me numerous times a week saying, hey, Raf, I don't know what to do. I feel overwhelmed. And I don't know how to balance my time. After numerous conversations, he finally said something that stuck with me. He said, "Yes, Gabe, you have a lot to do and trust me, I understand that. But out of all the things that you listed, you forgot to mention time for yourself." At first, I was puzzled, because there was just one more thing to do on my endless list. How can I fit one more thing into my schedule, if I couldn't already manage what I had to do previously. But I guess he did have a point, I started to do things that enjoyed like going to the gym, hanging out with friends and going for walks. I then started develop a schedule where I would complete all my school related tasks in the morning, and then leave a couple hours at night to do something that I wanted to do. So I guess what I'm trying to say here is that it is important to prioritize things, focus on your coursework in the first year of your master's degree, and then worry about your research project in the second year. And also, don't forget time to leave to do just you. Now moving on, I obviously had a couple of challenges with my own research project. So essentially, over the course of my undergraduate degree, I became very, very interested in the brain and its functions. The topic of cognitive impairment became of interest to me, as I essentially had to see my grandfather experienced difficulties in his everyday life due to Alzheimer's disease. Unfortunately, I know there's no cure for Alzheimer's. So I wanted to pursue a master's degree to further understand the disease and potentially lessen any impediments faced. However, accessing this population is a very difficult task, let alone convincing to engage in high intensity exercise. Now, I knew this before starting my master's degree, but I was eager to work with this population. I essentially spent a whole summer reaching out to neurologists in their area, organizations that provide support services to individuals that have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and also, professors who had previously studied this population. I obviously felt defeated when I continuosly heard, 'that seems like a very interesting project. But it may be very difficult to recruit participants for your study." Or you may have more success working with a different population. So to me, that was a major turning point and a challenge that I had to overcome. I had to pivot and determine an alternative way to conduct a similar study, I decided that it might be fitting to work with and study the effect on a young adult population with the intention of applying the same protocol in the near future.


Seth McCarthy  13:47

Thanks for sharing some of those challenges that you faced Gabe, I think you've had some nice insights too about ways that current graduate students or even undergraduate students can try to maintain some balance while maintaining school and life. So now that you've broken down your work and some of the challenges you face, can you describe what some of the next steps are for your work and then where you'd like to see it go?


Gabe Massarotto  13:52

So I think the first place that my mind goes regarding next steps is the need to study the effect of high intensity exercise on spatial memory in a population that is cognitively impaired. So again, individuals that have been diagnosed with either Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment. Cognitive impairment can lead to navigational abilities that are either moderately or severely compromised. At times, individuals may become lost in their environment and are unable to navigate to a specific destination, they essentially cannot find their way home. This becomes worrisome not only for the safety of the individual, but for their loved ones. Since it is expected that these populations would have a lower quote unquote, baseline for spatial memory, they should have lots of room for improvement. So determining if high intensity exercise can regress some other symptoms and or improve their spatial memory would be fascinating in itself. 


Seth McCarthy  14:50

Thanks, Gabe. Now, can you place your research in the broader context of maybe what type of exercise programs older adults or adults of any age maybe should be pursuing for proving brain health?


Gabe Massarotto  15:02

Now, I strongly believe that everyone, regardless of age should engage in high intensity exercise. Now, you don't need to engage in this type of exercise daily, as you do need to let time for your body recover, but try to incorporate it into your schedule every now and then. There is a caveat that I must explain first, it is important to consult with your family doctor before trying high intensity exercise, because engaging in exercise may be unsafe for those with underlying conditions, such as ones related to functioning of the heart, consuming some types of medications also interact negatively with high intensity exercise. So just be sure to clarify with your doctor before engaging. Also, I can't even count the number of times someone has approached me saying well, how can an individual who is much older in age engage in high intensity exercise, wouldn't be too vigorous for them? In short, high intensity exercise is relative to a person's age as well as their abilities. So a 76 year old individual would not be exercising at the same degree as an individual who is young and healthy. Ultimately, high intensity exercise can provide superior benefits to your health and functioning.


Seth McCarthy  16:15

Can you give some examples game of your favorite low and high intensity exercises?


Gabe Massarotto  16:21

So in the introduction, I touched upon a couple of low intensity exercises, so again, walking or swimming for leisure. So those would be the two ideal ones that I would recommend. Now, high intensity is very similar. So it takes those low intensity exercise and essentially just amps up the intensity. So whether that be walking, transitioning that into running at high intensities, or swimming for leisure, and transitioning that to a high intense swimming workout. So again, like I mentioned previously, it's essentially just exercising at a very high intensity, which will essentially elevate your heart rate significantly.


Seth McCarthy  17:00

Thanks, Gabe. Now as we're beginning to wrap things up, what should listeners remember when it comes to exercise and brain health and cognition? Are there some kind of key points that we should take away? 


Gabe Massarotto  17:11

You know, if someone asked me if I could summarize their discussion in one to two sentences, or simply explain the importance of my research, I would like to say two things. Firstly, I would obviously encourage everyone to engage in exercise. If not high intensity exercise, there are numerous other options, you just need to find something that works for you. Secondly, the process of aging is inevitable. As we age, we will begin to experience impairments in our everyday lives, as typical aging leads to decline in our physical and mental abilities. With that being said, simply forgetting something once in a while is not a cause for concern but if you are a loved one suspects that you're displaying worrisome behaviors, which are impacting your everyday life, it is important to seek a medical professional's help. Primary prevention is a term that is commonly used in our field. It essentially means seeking support, and engaging in activities that can prevent a health problem before it arises. Exercise can do just that. Oh, yeah, one more thing. Don't be afraid to ask for help. I'm always willing to assist anyone in every which way possible. If they're unsure of the route to take to get diagnosed, or interested in the support services available if they have already been diagnosed, I work with a phenomenal organization called Alzheimer Society. On their website, there are many useful links which can direct you to support services, or even teach you about the disease itself. They also host a program called Minds in Motion, which I helped to administer, that helps get the community active both physically and socially. So to wrap things up, and to conclude our conversation, I would essentially like to end on a quote that caught my attention a while back. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who was a notable doctor who began studying the benefits of exercise on one's health once said, "we do not exercise because we grow old, we grow old because we stop exercising." So in essence, take care of your body, because it is the only one that you have.


Seth McCarthy  19:14

Awesome, thanks for that Gabe. I think you bring some nice insight and potentially a unique situation in that you have multiple advisors, you're co-advised, you have the opportunity to work in multiple labs? Do you mind discussing some benefits or insights that you've gained from this scenario?


Gabe Massarotto  19:31

So I think the first place that again, my mind takes me is the fact that having two supervisors is a little bit complex, in the sense that you have two individuals who have very, very different perspectives. So obviously, conducting a research project like mine, you obviously need to have both individuals on the same page. But when they have different perspectives, it's very hard to find that happy medium. So I typically find myself having to mediate either to to come to common grounds, if that makes sense. 


Seth McCarthy  20:04

Do you have any tips gave for students that might be in a similar situation to you who are co advised? 


Gabe Massarotto  20:10

So I think it's important to all come to common ground. So whether it be having a meeting with all three individuals, or however many individuals there are at stake. So honestly just be open to new ideas. Because what everyone thinks differently, by having multiple supervisors and perspectives allows us to create a very, very unique project.


Seth McCarthy  20:31

Is there anything about your research that you feel is important to share that we haven't covered today?


Gabe Massarotto  20:36

I think I touched on this previously, but this is essentially encouraging everyone to engage in exercise. But again, if high intensity exercise does not work for you, or it somehow does not fit in your schedule, there are many numerous different types of exercise protocols. And again, you just need to find one that fits for you.


Seth McCarthy  20:55

That's awesome Gabe, I think that's a really important thing to end off on. So I just want to finish off by saying thank you for sharing your research. Hopefully, our listeners have learned a thing or two. 


Gabe Massarotto  21:05

Yep, thanks for joining in on the conversation and obviously, we had a very thoughtful discussion and I look forward to listening to what do you have to say about your own research project.


Shawna Reibling  21:15

Thanks to you both for sharing your research. It's exciting to learn more about how exercise and appetite are related and how high intensity exercise can help build memory. It has been interesting to learn that someone doesn't need to learn a whole new set of exercises, but just needs to learn to adjust the intensity of any exercise that you'd like to do for maximum memory benefit


Unknown  21:37

[jingle plays]


Shawna Reibling  21:42

I hope you enjoyed listening to today's discussion. If you want to learn more about exercise and memory and how exercise and appetite interact, listeners like you are encouraged to share these episodes, and use these podcasts and discuss these topics with your friends or as an assignment in the classroom. There are resources additional readings and details about the work of each researcher on our website at Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform to be notified of new Research Chat episodes. Research Chat is a partnership between the Office of Research Services, the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and the Laurier Library. Thank you to everyone who's contributed to the creation of Research Chat. a gratitude list can be found on our web page.


Unknown  22:31

[jingle fades]