As you have probably noticed in this blog, I particularly like to talk and write about the benefits of strength training as we age. Well here’s yet another – probably unexpected – benefit!
Strength training is good for your brain! You can get brawny and brainy – all at the same time!
Before I get into the research supporting this declaration, let’s look briefly at more conventional approaches to ‘Brain Training’. You may be aware that there is a large and growing market on this specific topic that claims to improve your focus, memory and intelligence using specially designed games that test your cognition. Yes, ‘There is an app for that’ – hundreds in fact!
In simple terms, all these apps are all based on the same premise
‘The brain is like a muscle’ – and it needs to be worked out if you want it to improve.
I will be looking at these app-based approaches to ‘Brain Training’ in a later post, but I want to make clear here that I am talking about a Strength Training work out. In other words, if you work out your actual muscles – it will benefit your actual brain!
As I have written in previous posts, strength training has produced not only physical, but social, emotional and psychological benefits. We can now also add ‘Cognitive’ to these benefits. Who would have thought that lifting heavy things would be so… beneficial!
1. ‘Brawny Brains’
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found an improvement in brain ‘Executive Function’ among older men and women who participated in a strength and balance-based exercise program. The study was conducted 3 times per week over a period of 6 months with falls monitored for a whole year.
At the end of the program, participants in the strength/balance group scored much better on tests of brain function. They also had more than 50% less falls after one year. The study concluded that the strength/balance program reduced falls by improving Executive Function and so cognitive performance.
Thought by some researchers to be part of the frontal lobes of the brain, Executive Function deals with things that are essential to safe and effective everyday living: things like judgment, problem solving, decision-making, planning and social conduct. These, in turn depend on many of our cognitive abilities such as attention, perception, memory, and language. Clearly, it is pretty important to keep these functions up and running as efficiently as possible and to find effective and accessible ways to do so! By the way, impaired Executive Function is also strongly associated with increased risk of falling and I have written about the potential catastrophic impact this can have on a person’s life. See my Post ‘DeFeeting’ the Fear of Falling.
2. Brawny Future Brains
Research has also shown that strength training earlier in life benefits future thinking skills! A landmark study on strength training and cognition was published just this year involving more than 300 sets of female twins. This is important to mention, since studying twins helps scientists identify any ‘nature vs nurture’ differences. In other words was it their lifestyle habits that provided them with strong legs and superior thinking abilities, or did they just win the genetic lottery?
In the first part of the study, all twins completed extensive tests of memory and thinking, as well tests of leg muscle power. Some twins also completed brain-imaging scans. Ten years later the twins returned to the laboratory and repeated the same tests.
The results were pretty amazing!
Those who had greater leg power in the first tests, showed significantly better thinking skills ten years later! Additionally, the more powerful twin scored almost 20% better on memory and other cognitive tests than her weaker sister! Perhaps the most surprising finding of all was that the more powerful twin also had significantly more brain volume: in particular they had more ‘Grey Matter’, a specialized tissue of the brain that processes information, and is highly related to Executive Function.
In other words, among both the identical and fraternal twins, ‘fitter’ legs were strongly linked, 10 years later, to ‘fitter’ brains.
Of course, this is only a quick look at the brain health of these middle aged female twins, so the researchers were not able to say that the higher levels of power ’caused’ the differences in thinking skills. However the study does lend powerful support to the concept that strength training can improve the way your brain works – cognitively as well as emotionally.
How Do We Get Beyond Brawny?
At the moment, we don’t really fully understand the processes by which strength training produces these brain benefits – but here’s what we do know. The Central Nervous System is very much involved in strength training, and also seems to undergo adaptation in response to lifting weights.
Recent research has suggested that these positive effects may come from new nerve cell generation in the brain. This produces an increase in neurotransmitters and the generation of new blood brain vessels.
The result of all this is more efficient oxygen delivery and waste removal, which in turn improves overall brain function and mental health.
If you would like to read more about research on strength truing and cognition click on the image below
Legs are the Twin Pillars of our independence. For decades we have known, instinctively or scientifically, that strong legs are essential for living well through the quantity and quality of our lives. We now also know that strengthening those muscles can also strengthen our minds!
The message, then, is clear…
Look after your Legs, look after your Lobes!
What will you do to maintain and increase your Strength – particularly your Leg Strength?
Be part of the conversation – record your thoughts or opinions on this post in the comments box below – or ask a question of your own.
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