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Weightlifting your way to a bigger brain

February 5, 2019


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More evidence for what we already know.......


Lift weights to make your muscles and your brain stronger. This is true to the extent that even those with mild cognitive impairment experience improved brain function when they weightlift, according to a new study by the University of Sydney.

Healthy muscles are key to strength, weight control, and a defence against type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, but, until now, the link to brain function was not causal.

"What we found ... is that the improvement in cognitive function was related to their muscle strength gains," said lead author Dr Yorgi Mavros, from the Faculty of Health Sciences, at University of Sydney. "The stronger people became, the greater the benefit for their brain."

To find this out Mavros, and his team, took 100 adults, aged between 55 and 80, who scored lower on cognitive tests, and divided them into four groups for twice weekly sessions for six months.

The first group's sessions comprised of resistance exercise and cognitive training, the second also did the exercise but placebo cognitive training (they watched nature videos), the third group did brain training exercises but no physical exercise while the fourth did placebo brain and physical training (seated stretching/calisthenics).

Those doing the resistance work had significant improvements in their cognitive function, even one year after the study was completed, while there was no improvement.

"It's definitely nice to see – this is the first study to show this relationship causally," Mavros tells Fairfax.

"Older adults typically lose muscle mass and muscle strength. If we can improve those two we might improve cognitive function."

It is for this reason that weight training is different to other forms of exercise like running or cycling, Mavros explains, although they still don't completely understand the mechanism behind it.

"It's likely hormones that contribute to muscle strength gains are also causing cognitive improvement."

Resistance training is something most of us can do more of. One study from earlier this year found that nine out of 10 Australians do not meet the guidelines of twice weekly strength training. Strength training can include lifting weights (barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells), using resistance bands or body weight (push-ups, sit-ups, squats).

The way we do it is just as important as how often, Mavros says.

"Weight training can be done effectively or done poorly," he explains. "With the intervention we used, participants were training at a very high intensity – 80 per cent of their maximum."

He adds that the oldest participant was 80 years old, so while the weights used may be very different among people, the intensity does not need to decrease with age.

"If you want to get changes in your brain, you need to be training at a high intensity," Mavros says, noting that resistance exercise can benefit us all physically and cognitively.

"Even people that are progressed in dementia can achieve some benefits. For any chronic condition you are likely to see some sort of benefit," he says. "It's never too late to start."

Sarah Berry is a lifestyle and health writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.


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