Be Well: Strength-Train for a Strong Brain

strongWoman-726c32e1It’s a fact that strength-training will make your body stronger, but did you know that it also improves the strength of your brain?

The brain is an organ, and like the other organs in the body, it is constantly changing, adapting and repairing itself in response to life’s activities, including exercise. It also changes as we age, just like the rest of the body. Neurological studies show that, by middle age, the majority of people begin developing age-caused lesions in the white matter of the brain. This white matter is what connects the different regions of the brain and is how the brain sends messages back and forth. As we grow older, these lesions can grow and multiply, affecting our cognitive abilities, like our memory. The brain also tends to shrink with age, which affects how we move, causing slower walking or a decrease in balance.

A study done by the UBC Aging, Mobility & Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory followed 155 women, ages 65 to 75, for one year. The women were assigned to one of three different exercise programs – stretching-and-balance training, strength-training once a week and the third group strength-trained twice a week. At the end of the year, the women in the stretching group and the women who lifted weights once a week showed a significant progression in the number and size of lesions in their brains. The women who lifted weights twice a week showed significantly less new lesions and a slowed progression in the pre-existing lesions. They also showed less shrinkage of the brain and walked more quickly and smoothly than the women in the other two groups.

According to the study’s author, Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a UBC physical-therapy professor, this is one of the first studies to show the strength-training benefits on the brain. It also shows that training less than twice a week is insufficient. “A minimum threshold of exercise needs to be achieved,” noted Liu-Ambrose.
Another study done by graduate students at the Georgia Institute of Technology asked a group of 46 adults to look at 90 photographs on a computer screen. Half of the group then did a short exercise session, while the other half did no exercise. Two days later, the same 46 people looked at a series of 180 photographs and were asked to recall which photos they had seen before. Those who exercised remembered 60 percent of the photos they had seen before, while those who had not exercised remembered far fewer of the photos.

Research shows that exercise improves memory due to the release of the stress hormone norepinephrine. This hormone is a chemical messenger in the brain and plays a key role in memory.

These studies show that strength-training benefits the brain just as it does the rest of the body. For older adults with limited mobility, strength-training may even be easier to do than aerobic exercises, like running or swimming. It improves both physical and cognitive health at any and all ages.

Be Well Tips

  • Consult a physician before beginning or changing an exercise program.
  • Strength-train at least twice a week.
  • Strength-training can be done at any age.
  • Strength-training improves cognitive function.
  • Consult a professional to begin a strength-training program.
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