Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Strength training and its effect on our brains

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Every so often, a study comes along that serves as a wake-up call for those of us who want to make sure our exercise counts. This week, a study out of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver revealed that strength training, when done twice a week, can delay or alter age-related changes in our brain. Subjects put on a twice weekly strength training regimen were compared to others who did balance and stretching activities with the same frequency and another group who did strength training once a week. The group who did strength training twice a week showed a marked difference compared to the other two groups.

As we get older, lesions and holes develop in the white matter of our brains, which then lead to mild cognitive impairments like memory loss and word finding problems. Those changes were mitigated in study subjects who performed weight lifting exercises twice a week. In the past, regular aerobic exercise had been shown to be effective in oxygenating and maintaining synapses in our brain, but now we know weight training may have just as important an effect. The mechanism is not entirely clear, but it may have to do with a chemical released by our muscles when challenged. For more details go to  Harvard psychiatrist John J. Ratey wrote about the overall benefits in SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008). The title says it all- it’s a very worthwhile read.

There are other beneficial effects of strength training, variously referred to as weight training or resistance training. It has been noted in several different studies to have a positive effect on many mental health as well as physical issues. The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine reviewed studies that examined the effects of weight training on a myriad of psychological and physical issues. These included reductions in low back pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, cognitive impairment, insomnia, depression and fatigue, and an increase in self esteem. Go to to learn more. 

In the Archives of Internal Medicine from April, 2013, one study compared the effects of aerobic exercise and resistance training on the brain. “In senior women with subjective memory complaints, six months of twice-weekly resistance training improved selective attention/conflict resolution, associative memory, and regional patterns of functional brain plasticity, compared with twice-weekly balance and tone exercises. In contrast, six months of twice-weekly aerobic training improved physical function. We provide novel evidence that resistance training can benefit multiple domains in those at-risk for dementia.” In previous studies, aerobic exercise has been shown to also improve brain function, but fewer studies have examined the effects of weight training alone, and this study differentiated the effects of these forms of exercise.  See for more details.

What constitutes weight training?

  • doing body weight exercises like push-ups, planks, squats and lunges
  • doing resistance tubing exercises using thera-tubes with handles, or mini-loop elastic bands for arms and legs
  • using dumbbells or barbells for upper body
  • using weight training machines for exercises like chest presses, leg presses, rows and lat pulls

What’s the take-away?  Don’t skip resistance training as part of your exercise routine; it has many positive effects on brain function as long as you perform it at least twice a week.  Read John Ratey’s book mentioned previously. If you’re not convinced yet, you will be after this read.  So, heave-ho and challenge those muscles- your body and brain will thank you!

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