Attention, Women: Exercising with Weights Can Lift Your Brain's Performance

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • My particular exercise class of choice most Saturdays is a group class that involves an hour of lifting weights. The class’s routine hits all of the major muscle groups, which I and my fellow exercisers do to the exaltations of the class instructor and the bouncy songs that take the mind’s focus off of the potential discomfort of doing multiple repetitions. This particular class tends to be full of women in their 30s-50s, with a scattering of men. As I analyze my latest workout, I think back to a similar class which I took at a previous gym where I was a member. That particular class had one noticeable difference – one participant was a woman who was in her 70s.

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    Turns out that lifting weights (also known as strength training) regularly may have benefited this lady’s brain as well as her bones. A recent study by British Columbia researchers found that women, ages 65 to 75, who did strength training exercises each week scored higher on tests that measured the brain’s ability to plan and execute tasks. The researchers randomly assigned the study’s participants to two groups. One group exercised with dumbbells and weight machines once or twice a week, while the other group participated in toning and balance exercises. After a year, the group of women who lifted weights improved their executive function by 10.9 percent while those who took part in balance and toning exercises showed a slight deterioration. In addition, women who were in the group that lifted weights showed “an enhanced ability to make decisions, resolve conflicts and focus on subjects without being distracted by competing stimuli,” wrote New York Times reporter Roni Caryn Rabin.

    Many women worry avoid lifting weights since they are concerned about bulking up. That’s not the case since women don’t have the proper hormones to gain that type of muscle. Jeffrey Heit’s post on HealthCentral's diet and fitness site provides a good primer on the basics of strength training on HealthCentral’s diet and fitness. And lifting weights may have additional positive consequences. “Resistance training helps women fight the aging process by maintaining lean muscle tissue,” wrote Sarah Richards at “Women who regularly lift weights have better self-esteem and get sick less often. Others have found weight training improves the way the body processes sugar, reducing the risk of diabetes.”

    I’d strongly suggest that if you’re new to exercising with weights, you hire a personal trainer for a couple of sessions or attend a class (like I do) since you’ll be coached on proper form. Georgia State University also provides 10 tips to help readers start their own weight training:
    1.    Warm up your body prior to exercising, which allows nutrient-rich blood to be delivered to muscles and joints.
    2.    Stretching increases and maintains muscle flexibility.
    3.    During your first week of exercising with weights, use the lightest ones so you can focus on your technique and form. Slowly work up to heavier weights.

  • 4.    Be sure to go through the complete range of motion. You also need to move slowly and with control, and maintain a neutral spine. And be sure to breathe instead of holding your breath!

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    5.    The intensity of a weight-lifting workout depends on numerous factors, such as the number of sets and repetitions, the size of the overall weight being lifted and the rest you take between sets. Changing just one of these will vary the intensity of your workout.
    6.    Listen to our body to determine your overall sense of exertion. Heart rate will not help you determine the intensity while lifting weights.
    7.    The minimum amount of strength training recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine is 8-12 repetitions of 8-10 exercises done at a moderate intensity. This training should be done at least two days a week.
    8.    Each strength training session should last one hour or less.
    9.    You should rest each muscle that you train 1-2 days before your next weight-lifting effort in order to let the muscle to rebuild.
    10.   Do not go by the claim of “No pain, no gain.” Instead, realize that your body will adapt to strength training, which will cause the soreness you experience to lessen each time you work out.

    My triceps and shoulders are still aching a bit from attending Saturday’s class, but I consider it a good soreness. And I’m glad to know that my exertions will benefit my brain. I’ll “lift” to that!

Published On: February 01, 2010