Just about everyone knows that exercise is good for our bodies and for our brains. And, while most studies regarding physical exercise and brain health have focused on running, walking and aerobic activities, a new study has now focused on the benefits of weightlifting on brain health.
Research by scientists at the University of British Columbia illustrates that resistance training may also slow the shrinking of some parts of our brains associated with aging.
Like the rest of our body parts, brains remain vulnerable to the passing of time. Many studies have shown that by late-middle age, most of us have begun to develop age-related lesions or holes in the white matter of our brains. This white matter is the material responsible for connecting and communicating messages among different regions of the brain.
At first, these lesions do not cause symptoms we would notice. They are detected when they appear on brain scans before we observe any memory or thinking issues. However, over time, these lesions can enlarge and multiply. In fact, older people who have many lesions on their brain’s white matter tend to have worse cognitive abilities when compared with individuals whose white matter is generally intact.
A few studies have indicated that regular, moderate aerobic exercise may slow the development and progression of white matter lesions in older people.
Teresa Liu-Ambrose, director of the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at UBC, wanted to take those studies further and try to determine if other types of exercises may be beneficial for white matter.
She was particularly interested in weight training since it strengthens and builds the body’s muscles. Muscles, like brains, tend to shrink as we get older, thereby affecting how we move. Smaller muscle mass typically results in slower, unsteady walking.
Moreover, scientists believe that age-caused changes in our gait may indicate and possibly contribute to declines in the health of our brains.
So, Professor Liu-Ambrose thought that, possibly, weight training may alter the muscle-shrinking process and potentially keep brains and bodies healthier as we age.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, and focused on 54 women whose brain scans revealed the presence of existing white matter lesions.
The scientists tested the women’s gait speed and stability, then randomly assigned them to one of three groups with different levels of weight training. The women practiced their exercise routines for a period of one year.
The women’s brains were scanned again and their walking ability reassessed. The results showed that the women in the control group, who only focused on balance and flexibility, showed significant progression in the slowing of their gaits and in the number and size of the lesions in their white matter.
Similar results were found in the women who had weight trained once per week.
Those who had lifted weights twice a week, however, showed significantly less shrinkage of their white matter than the other women.
Liu-Ambrose concluded that for whatever the reason, exercise – including training with weights – clearly benefits our brains. “However we are just really now gaining an appreciation for how impactful exercise can be.”