Resistance training has been shown to improve many health-related benefits, including reducing risk to causes of mortality, including fewer cardiovascular events, improved body composition, better glucose regulation, and lower blood pressure, as well as for the prevention and management of osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and metabolic syndrome.
But can muscular activity or strength training affect brain function, especially in older adults?
Regular exercisers know well the effects of exercise on mood, sleep and concentration. Exercise of any kind can help calm people, focus their mental concentration, as well as give them energy and reduce lethargy.
However, apart from general benefits to mood, stress and sleep levels, more evidence is mounting about improvements to the higher brain functions of cognition and executive functioning.
These terms refer to more immediate brain processes such as thinking, reasoning, storing and retrieving memories. The positive effects on these higher brain functions were replicated in a study done at UBC this year, when a group of 86 senior women with mild cognitive impairment performed resistance and aerobic training.
The six-month study showed that twice a week resistance training improved executive cognitive functions necessary for independent living, such as concentration, problem solving, and decision making. One interesting result of this study was that aerobic exercise did not affect cognition, whereas it had positive effects in previous studies to healthy older adults.
So why should strength training have this effect on brain function? These mechanisms are quite speculative at the moment, but could involve the same hormonal, circulatory and chemical mechanisms that affect the way muscle, tendon and bone respond to strength training.
There may turn out to be many different factors involved in new nerve cell generation in the brain. But, whatever the mechanism, it appears that older adults with brain function impairment can improve brain function and that is great news for anyone who has early stage Alzheimer’s disease or related loss of brain function.
The attraction to strength training is that it is reasonably accessible to most, but not every older adult is comfortable or confident with beginning a weight-training program.
There are programs and facilities for this at various recreation and senior’s centres, rehabilitation clinics, and there are instructional resources around on the internet.
Younger family members can help navigate the internet for these resources if needed.
The researchers at UBC who performed the recent study have produced a 10-minute YouTube video that introduces the concept of resistance training and demonstrates the exercises quite well. To find the study, Google YouTube exercise is power.
But don’t ignore mental exercises as well. Brain cells, just like muscle cells, atrophy (shrink) when they are not used. As we age, the brain’s reserve capacity – the ability to withstand damage due to aging and other factors without affecting memory, concentration or decision-making – reduces over the years. By keeping it active you can help delay this process.
Good brain exercises include reading books, doing crossword puzzles and other word games, doing math in your head, even simple computer games like solitaire will all work to stimulate the brain as long as it provides new mental stimulation.
Researchers believe that the most effective plan to increase your cognitive reserve is to stimulate your brain in several ways each day. That includes diet, resistance exercise, and lifestyle factors, as well as the daily flexing of your brain’s neurons.
Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of
science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology
in Maple Ridge.