Regular exercise can help fend off heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even some cancers, but did you know that it can also benefit your brain?
Natural aging shrinks the white matter of the brain, which is responsible for connecting and sending messages between different regions of the brain. By the time we reach late middle age, most of us will develop these age-related holes, or lesions, in the white matter of the brain. The less intact the white matter, the worse cognitive abilities may be.
Past studies have shown the benefits of aerobic exercise (such as walking, jogging, swimming, etc.) on brain health, but new research by Teresa Liu-Ambrose, professor of physical therapy and director of the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, looks specifically at how resistance training (a.k.a. weightlifting) can benefit the brain.
Liu-Ambrose’s year-long study of 54 women between the ages of 65 and 75 who had existing white matter lesions on the brain showed that the women who lifted weights twice per week had significantly less white matter shrinkage than the women who did less weight training. While the lesions in the brain did multiply, it was not nearly as significant as the progression of the women in the control group.
In an earlier study by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, women ages 70 to 80 with mild cognitive impairment were assigned to one of three groups: resistance training, aerobic training or balance-and-tone training. Women in each program exercised twice a week for six months. At the end of the study period, participants who were assigned strength training outperformed the other groups on a series of tests measuring memory and attention, among other brain functions like conflict resolution. The same results were not found for the women assigned to the aerobics group, though that group did improve on a memory task.
While research in the area of strength training and brain health is relatively new, it is clear that regular exercise (including both aerobic and resistance training) can benefit your brain. To get the benefits, you should meet a minimum threshold of exercise per week. Dr. Liu-Ambrose recommends strength training at least twice a week to experience the benefits for your brain health.