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“Much like resistance training can improve the muscle tone of the aging body, it also can tone the aging brain.” Teresa Liu-Ambrose et al, Neurobiology of Aging (July 2011)

Resistance Training Helps Keep the Brain Fit

No doubt about it, exercise is good for the brain. The question is which form of exercise, aerobic or resistance.  The answer may surprise you. 

Many studies have shown the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise on the brain. One of the most striking was the 2006 finding that three months of brisk walking gave people the brain volume of those three years younger. (Aerobic Exercise Pumps up Your Brain, # 182 in our Fitness and Health category) We’ve written about the positive effects of aerobic exercise on brain function numerous times. (Articles # 39, 139, 204, 266, & 291)

Studies of resistance training and brain function are rare, however. Two of the most significant were led by Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PhD, of the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia. In 2010, she and her colleagues were the first to demonstrate that engaging in progressive resistance training as infrequently as once a week can significantly benefit executive cognitive function in senior women; for details, see # 260 in our Strength Training category.  

Now, she and her colleagues are back with another first in the study of resistance training and the brain. The study was reported in the July, 2011, issue of Neurobiology of Aging.

They showed that 12 months of twice-weekly progressive resistance training (Keiser pressurized machines and free weights, 2 sets of 6 to 8 reps) led to functional changes in two regions of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain. For the first time, they showed that weight training changes how well older women think and how blood flows within their brains. The women performed significantly better on tests of mental processing ability (selective attention and conflict resolution) than a control group of women who completed a balance and toning program. Functional MRI scans showed that portions of the brain that control such tasks were considerably more active in the weight trainers.

The researchers found that blood flow changes in those regions occurred simultaneously with improved performance.

Interestingly, these effects were only observed in participants doing resistance training twice a week; “participants of the once-weekly resistance training did not demonstrate comparable response profiles,” Liu-Ambrose et al reported.

“We’re not trying to show that lifting weights is better than aerobic-style activity,” Liu-Ambrose told The New York Times. “But it does appear to be a viable option…if people enjoy it, as our participants did, and stick with it.”

That’s a key point, because some people can’t tolerate aerobic exercise; others find it boring.

“Aerobic exercise training requires relatively healthy joints and a degree of cardiovascular fitness, [and] both of these can be limited in seniors,” the researcher wrote in their report. In addition, more than a few people just can’t get excited about brisk walking or indoor cycling.

For these people, resistance training may be a desirable option. “Much like resistance training can improve the muscle tone of the aging body, it also can tone the aging brain,” Teresa Liu-Ambrose et al wrote.

Having a choice can make the difference between a toned body and mind, or falling prey to sedentary living.

So, the answer to our opening query is that both forms of exercise are good for the brain. A combination of the two is probably the best option. “It may be possible to target different subsets of basic cognitive functions in seniors using different exercise strategies—either aerobic or resistance interventions,” Teresa Liu-Ambrose et al wrote in the Discussion portion of their report. 

In the final analysis, the choice is yours—something we could not honestly say until recently.

Hats off to Dr. Liu-Ambrose and her colleagues, and other hard working researchers around the world.

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