Study: Strength Training May Be Top Exercise for Cognitive Improvement

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Color me surprised! I have always heard that exercise itself is really good for your brain. And I’ve also heard that aerobic activity is especially important in maintaining your brain’s function. But a new study out of the University of British Columbia has findings that put strength training at the top of the list if you want to keep your grey matter going strong.

    The study, which was just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and reported by MedlinePlus (which is a service by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health), followed a group of 77 women between the ages of 70 and 80 who were experiencing memory lapses and were believed to have mild cognitive impairment, which is often the precursor to Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. Lead researcher Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Physical Therapy, and her group asked the participants to participate in hour-long classes twice a week over a six-month period. A third of the study participants were randomly assigned to do strength training while another third participated in an aerobic walking program. The final group participated in balance and toning exercise classes.

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    To gauge their mental capacity throughout the study, the participants took a battery of memory tests looking at verbal and visual memory as well as their decision-making and problem-solving abilities. In addition, one third of study participants had a functional MRI at the beginning and end of the study.

    At the end of the six-month study period, the researchers found that the strength-training group had a significant cognitive improvement when compared to the women who participated in the balancing and toning classes. When comparing these two groups, the researchers found that only the strength-training group experienced changes in three areas of the brain’s cortex that are linked to cognitive behavior. And while the group of women who participated in aerobic walking did have improvements to their physical health, Liu-Ambrose and her team found that this group didn’t seem to experience the type of mental gains that the women who participated in the strength-training group did.

    This study built on an earlier study by Liu-Ambrose that found that doing light-duty weight makes a cognitive difference. “After 12 months of lifting weights twice a week, the women performed significantly better on tests of mental processing ability than a control group of women who completed a balance and toning program, while functional M.R.I. scans showed that portions of the brain that control such thinking were considerably more active in the weight trainers,” reported the University of British Columbia Rehabilitation Sciences website.

    Admittedly, this study was a small one and it needs to be expanded to include men as well as women of a different age group. But personally, I think these findings provide the encouragement for everyone – no matter what the age -- to add two days of strength training to their exercise routine in order to fight dementia.

  • So what’s the best way to do this? The Mayo Clinic suggests four options that you can do at home or in the gym:

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    • Body weight. Many exercises that only use your own body qualify as strength training. These include push-ups, pull-ups, abdominal crunches and leg squats.
    • Resistance tubing. This inexpensive and lightweight tubing can be easily purchased at sporting goods stores. You can use it to provide resistance when stretched, such as doing bicep curls by anchoring the tube under your feet and then curling your arms up by hinging at the elbows while clasping the tubing’s handle in your hands.
    • Free weights. Barbells and dumbbells can be purchased to use for strength training. I’ve also seen some people use household supplies in place of weights. Depending on your strength level, these choices could vary from cans of food to jugs of laundry soap.
    • Weight machines. These are often found in fitness centers, but you can easily purchase one to use at home.

    Be sure to concentrate on form when doing strength training so you don’t hurt yourself. I’d encourage you to take a class, hire a trainer, or rent or stream videos so you can watch proper form in order reduce the chance of injury.  Also be careful about how much weight you lift; it’s better to start light and then increase the weight as you gain more strength. The Mayo Clinic recommends choosing a weight or resistance level that is heavy enough to tire muscles around the 12th repetition. When you are able to do more than 15 repetitions of an exercise, gradually increase the weight or resistance. Also, the Mayo Clinic encourages you to rest one full day when doing strength training with a specific muscle group so you can allow your muscles to recover.

    Doing strength training is obviously good for your body, but who knew it may be a special kind of brain candy? That news might not make pushups fun, but it will definitely make me schedule time for strength training in my weekly exercise program. I hope this news does the same for you!


    Primary Sources for this Sharepost:


    Mayo Clinic. (2010). Strength training: get stronger, leaner, healthier.


    MedlinePlus. (2012). Strength training may give boost to seniors' brains. U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.

Published On: May 01, 2012