Strength training can improve your brain

Being strong is good for your brain.

New research out of the University of Sydney has found that increasing physical strength can improve cognitive function.

The study, also published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, used older subjects between 55–68 years of age with mild cognitive impairment, which is a high risk factor for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers focused specifically on the link between progressive resistance training and cognitive function in the elderly.

The 100 participants were divided into four groups and put on a six-month trial; each group performed a range of different activities, including resistance training (weights), placebo resistance (seated stretching), computerised cognitive training and placebo brain training. The subjects had their selective attention, planning, organising and multitasking skills measured for changes.

The findings were significant, strongly suggesting that brain decline can be partially delayed through resistance exercise. In addition, the improvements in muscle strength lowered the chance of an individual developing Alzheimer’s.

The cognitive training, meanwhile, did not yield any improvements in cognitive skills.

While previous studies have shown a similar link, this is the first study to delve into the exact type, quality and frequency of exercise required for cognitive gains.

“What we found in this follow-up study is that the improvement in cognition function was related to their muscle strength gains,” says lead author Dr. Yorgi Mavros. “The stronger people became, the greater the benefit for their brain.”

This study has provided specificity for the types of exercise that can benefit the brain not just for the elderly, but for anyone interested in living a long life.

“The more we can get people doing resistance training like weightlifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier aging population,” says Dr. Mavros. “The key, however, is to make sure you are doing it frequently, at least twice a week, and at a high intensity so that you are maximizing your strength gains. This will give you the maximum benefit for your brain.’

The exercise blueprint for a healthy brain in old age:

• Type of exercise: Weights
• Frequency: At least twice a week
• Intensity: High

Yorgi, M. et al. (2016.) ‘Mediation of cognitive function improvements by strength gains after resistance training in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: Outcomes of the Study of Mental and Resistance Training.’ Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
DOI: 10.1111/jgs.14542

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