Strength training for the brain

Can exercise keep your noggin in tip-top shape as you age?

People who report being more physically active are less likely to develop memory loss than those who say they’re sedentary.1

“They are about 20 percent less likely to be diagnosed with dementia, and their cognitive function declines more slowly,” says Maria Fiatarone Singh, a professor of medicine and exercise and sport science at the University of Sydney in Australia.

But when researchers put healthy people on treadmills several days a week for weeks or months to see if they do better than sedentary people on memory and other tests, “there usually isn’t a large effect on cognitive function,” notes Fiatarone Singh.2

Cue the dumbbells. A handful of studies suggests that strength training may offer some boost to the brain.lifting weights

For example, researchers assigned 155 older women with no cognitive problems to do strength training once or twice a week or balancing and toning exercises twice a week.3 After a year, the strength-training groups were faster than the balance and toning group on a test of executive function—the ability to plan, organize, and show other signs of mental flexibility. (One example: the test asked them to name the color of the word “blue,” which was printed in red ink.) However, the strength trainers did no better on tests of working memory (remembering a list of numbers).

What about people who already have some memory loss? Fiatarone Singh studied 100 older adults with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI.4 People with MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other dementias. The volunteers were assigned to do an hour of strength training or computer-based mental training twice a week, both, or neither.

After six months, the strength trainers did better on a test of Alzheimer’s symptoms—being able to name a flower, pencil, comb, or other object, for example—than those who didn’t lift weights. But they did no better on overall tests of memory, attention, or executive function.

Keep in mind that the people in these studies lifted heavier and heavier weights as they got stronger. “The volume and intensity of exercise programs for seniors are usually way too low,” says Fiatarone Singh. “In our studies, those who lifted the most weight had the greatest improvements in cognition.”(Before you hit the heavy weights, make sure you’re doing it safely.)

Fiatarone Singh’s bottom line: “What’s good for the body is also good for the brain. The benefits of exercise don’t stop at the neck.”


1 BMC Public Health 14: 510, 2014.
2 Psychosom. Med. 72: 239, 2010.
3 Arch. Intern. Med. 170: 170, 2010.
4 J. Am. Med. Dir. Assoc. 15: 873, 2014.
5 J. Am. Ger. Soc. 2016. doi:10.1111/jgs.14542.


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