Lift weights, strengthen your brain

October 26, 2016 Providence Health Team

Australian researchers say they have proven what many have suspected: Building your muscle strength is good for your brain.

In a study that has powerful implications for older adults whose memories are in decline, researchers found a connection between progressive resistance training and brain function in adults older than 55 with mild cognitive impairment. People with mild cognitive impairment have diminished ability to think or recall memories, but are still able to live independently.

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

What the study showed

The Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART) program examined 100 people between the ages of 55 and 86. They were divided into two groups: one that did resistance – or strength-building – exercises and one that did “placebo exercises,” such as seated stretches.

People doing the resistance training:

  • Lifted weights twice a week for six months
  • Lifted up to 80 percent of their peak strength
  • Ratcheted up their weights as they got stronger to remain at 80 percent of their peak strength

Those who did resistance training saw significant improvement in their cognition, as measured by such tests as the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive. And the benefits persisted even 12 months after the weightlifting sessions ended.

“The more we can get people doing resistance training like weight lifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier aging population,” Mavros said. “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.”

To learn more about muscle strength and cognition

An abstract of the study, “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,” is available at the website of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The University of Sidney wrote its own story about the findings. You can read it here.

The National Institute on Aging discusses the nature and management of mild cognitive impairment on its page “About Alzheimer’s Disease: Mild Cognitive Impairment.” The institute says people with mild cognitive impairment are at risk for developing Alzheimer’s, but don’t always do so.

If you or someone you love is older and showing signs of cognitive impairment, talk to your health care provider about whether an exercise program can help. If you don’t have one, you can find a Providence provider here.

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