So far we’ve known that exercise improves brain function. But most studies of exercise and brain health have focused on aerobic activities such as running or walking.

Now a new study suggests that light resistance training may also slow the age-related shrinkage of our brains. Meaning that, yes, weight training has the potential to change the structure of your brain!
Our brains remodel and repair themselves constantly throughout our life in response to our lifestyles, including whether and how we exercise.

Many neurological studies have found that by late middle age, most of us have begun developing age-related lesions in our brains’ white matter, which is the material that connects and passes messages between different brain regions.

These lesions show up in brain scans before someone notices signs of memory loss or mental confusion. But the lesions can widen and multiply with time, shrinking our white matter and disturbing our thinking. Neurological studies have shown that older people with many lesions tend to have poor cognition than those whose white matter is relatively intact.

Teresa Liu-Ambrose, director of the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia wondered whether weight training, because it strengthens and builds muscle, could be beneficial to keeping our white matter free of lesions.

To find out, she and her colleagues enlisted a group of 65 to 75 year-old women who had had at least one brain scan. After testing their gait speed and stability, they were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

Some began a once-weekly program of light weight training, others did the same routine twice per week and the third group (control) undertook a twice-weekly regimen of stretching and balance training.

All the women followed their assigned routines for a year. At the end of that time, their brains were scanned again and their walking ability re-assessed.

The results were alarming. The women in the control group showed progression in the number and size of the lesions in their white matter and a slowing of their gait. So did the women who had weight trained once per week.

But those who had lifted weights twice per week showed significantly less shrinkage of their white matter, they walked more easily and swiftly than the women in the other two groups.      

According to Dr. Liu-Ambrose, “A minimum threshold of exercise needs to be achieved”, meaning, a once-per week workout is not enough, twice per week is required for weight training to beneficially change the structure of the brain.

The studies are ongoing. But it makes sense that weight training, by improving walking ability, may affect portions of the brain related to movement that in turn somehow slow the brain’s loss of white matter or it’s possible that strengthened muscles release substances that find their way to the brain causing beneficial changes there.

We’ve all known that both our muscles and our brain shrink with age. Loss of muscle mass means unsteady and slower walking.

This new study is a wake-up call. Has your gait changed? Remember gait could be an indication of brain health decline.

This study is thrilling for me because it puts to rest the question of how to improve one’s balance, one I’m often asked. The answer I’ve always given is now sanctioned by a scientific study. You want to improve balance and coordination? Build muscle mass, stronger muscles will carry you through life with speed and assurance! On top of that, they will help you conserve your brain’s white matter.   

This study was published in The Journal of the American Geriatric Society (Nov. 2015)  Article by Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times, Oct., 2015

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