Strength Training and Cognitive Function
When you think of exercise, what springs to mind? Aerobics? Running? Hiking? How about lifting weights?
Lifting heavy things is starting to get its due, but even now, millions of people still don’t know about the health benefits it offers.
Some fear bulking up. Others still think running torches more calories than cranking out reps. However, that just isn’t true.
Resistance training has been shown to be as beneficial as aerobic, cardio-based exercise for overall health. Plus, it’s been shown to:
• Improve lung function in folks with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)(1)
• Help control risk factors for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease
• Enhance bone strength in people with osteoporosis(2)
So, to recap, resistance training offers the same benefits as boring old cardio, plus a host of additional ones that can contribute to longevity.
How does strength training affect cognitive function?
Weight lifting aka strength training is a great way to exercise our mind and cognitive functions. Cognitive functions encompass everything from focus at your job to motor skills to problem solving—be it adding up your grocery bill or reading a magazine.
Data shows that the older we get, the less likely we are to strength train(2). In a perfect world, our twilight years are exactly when we should be strength training. Why?
Simply put, our brains naturally shrink over time, reducing our abilities to remember things, limiting our attention span, and slowing down our thinking (3).
Strength training has been shown to combat these signs of aging.
In one study, a group of mentally alert women with an average age of 65 were placed on a 3-month long strength training program. 3 times a week, they performed upper and lower body exercises like lateral dumbbell raises and machine leg presses. The results were remarkable, with the group gaining muscle mass and better cognitive scores(4).
In another study, a group of elderly people aged around 75 with complaints of bad memory were placed on a 6-month regime of free strength training twice a week for an hour. Researchers found that these participants experienced improvements in attention and memory, and had stronger brain signals on MRI scans that indicated better brain plasticity (which is an indication that the brain is making new connections; crucial for learning and memory) at the end of the trial(5).
How does strength training improve cognitive function?
Researchers have found that strength training increases the levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in the brain. This molecule promotes the growth of neurons, encourages their survival, and improves cognitive performance.
Strength training may also help lower levels of homocysteine, a harmful substance that has been associated with impaired cognitive performance and Alzheimer’s disease (8).
Strength training also improves blood flow in the brain, which helps ensure our nerves get enough oxygen and nutrients(9).
Strength training is just one way to improve your mental performance. And there are countless others.
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1. Iepsen UW, Jørgensen KJ, Ringbaek T, Hansen H, Skrubbeltrang C, Lange P. A Systematic Review of Resistance Training Versus Endurance Training in COPD. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention. 2015;35(3):163-72.
2. O'Connor PJ, Herring MP, Caravalho A. Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training in Adults. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2010;4(5):377-96.
3. Yankner BA, Lu T, Loerch P. The Aging Brain. Annual Review of Pathology: Mechanisms of Disease. 2008;3(1):41-66.
4. Smolarek AdC, Ferreira LHB, Mascarenhas LPG, McAnulty SR, Varela KD, Dangui MC, et al. The effects of strength training on cognitive performance in elderly women. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2016;11:749-54.
5. Nagamatsu LS, Handy TC, Hsu CL, Voss M, Liu-Ambrose T. Resistance training promotes cognitive and functional brain plasticity in seniors with probable mild cognitive impairment: A 6-month randomized controlled trial. Archives of internal medicine. 2012;172(8):666-8.
6. Dunsky A, Abu-Rukun M, Tsuk S, Dwolatzky T, Carasso R, Netz Y. The effects of a resistance vs. an aerobic single session on attention and executive functioning in adults. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(4):e0176092.
7. Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, Smee DJ, Rattray B. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2018;52(3):154.
8. Liu-Ambrose T, Donaldson MG. Exercise and Cognition in Older Adults: Is there a Role for Resistance Training Programs? British journal of sports medicine. 2009;43(1):25-7.
9. Chang YK, Pan CY, Chen FT, Tsai CL, CC. H. Effect of resistance-exercise training on cognitive function in healthy older adults: a review. J Aging Phys Act 2012 20(4):497-517.