If you want to keep your brain power into old age then you should pick up a pair of weights, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Some quick science: Muscle, as you probably already know, tends to shrink with age (even as the brain-muscle connection improves, which partly explains why some older guys are still really strong). Brains are like that too, except that instead of simply shrinking, they develop tiny little holes, or “lesions,” in their white matter, which helps connect different parts of the brain.
Lesions are normal by late middle age. Most people don’t even show any cognitive decline when the lesions first start showing up on brain scans. Over the long term, however, more lesions start to appear in the brain, and they tend to get bigger, which leads to reduced cognitive ability as people age. It’s a pretty simple concept—excercise makes the brain healthier too, right?—but there’s mixed evidence that’s true. One previous study suggested that moderate exercise, like walking, helped increase the volume of gray matter, but didn’t affect white-matter lesions. Another study suggested there’s pretty much no connection at all between them.
So researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver tested the theory, except they specifically focused on how resistance training might put a halt to those nasty lesions. They put 54 women aged 65 to 75—all with evidence of white-matter lesions—through one of three training programs: once-weekly resistance training, twice-weekly reistance training, or a twice-weekly “balance and tone” routine.
The resistance training exercises included squats, lunges, and free weights, as well as the Kaiser system, says study author Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, P.T., Ph.D., the director of UBC’s Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. “We had the participants do the same exercises twice per week but we did continually progress them so the the target load was 2 sets of 8 reps. We also challenged them progressively in terms of the motor control/movement—such as squats, to lunges, to lunge walk.”
After a year, women who strength trained twice a week had “significantly lower” white-matter lesions, suggesting that regular weightlifting boosts brain health (and therefore cognitive health) in the long run. And though the study was conducted on women, Liu-Ambrose says the results are equally relevant for men.
“From the data we generated, as well as understanding the benefit of resistance training on cardiometabolic and cardiovascular health, one could reasonably hypothesize that long-term resistance training could prevent [white-matter] lesion development and progression,” Liu-Ambrose says.
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