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Can weight training boost your brain health?

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With research suggesting that lifting weights can benefit brain health, personal trainer Andrew Cate investigates the connection between strong muscles and a strong mind.

The connection between weights and your brain

Even small amounts of exercise are known to improve brain functions such as memory, attention, and reaction time. Progressive weight training is a form of exercise suitable for all ages and abilities, and triggers a raft of changes that may benefit brain health, including:
  • Healthy blood pressure
  • Decreased stress
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Improved body composition (more muscle, less fat)
  • Increased cerebral blood flow
  • Improved brain chemistry

The research

In the SMART study (Study of Mental Activity and Resistance Training) recently published in Molecular Psychiatry researchers examined changes to the brain after 6 months of progressive resistance training. What they found was a number of positive structural and functional changes, especially in older adults who are experiencing some degree of cognitive impairment.
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How to train to boost brain health

  • Consistency

    The participants trained twice a week throughout the study. Strength training is best performed 2-3 times per week, with at least 24-48 hours rest between workouts. Maintaining consistency is vital to your success, helping to ensure your body adapts to the stimulus of resistance training. To maintain consistency, it may help to employ motivational strategies, such as finding a good training partner, listening to uplifting music while you train, and rewarding your efforts along the way
  • A view to the long-term

    The subjects trained for 26 weeks during this study. In other words, the benefits were not instantaneous, but achieved over a longer time frame. A long-term focus on the bigger picture helps to create realistic expectations, and can help to avoid the motivational ups and downs that can be common when we are looking for a quick fix
  • A focus on progression

    Participants progressed continuously throughout the 26 week study by re-assessing their strength every three weeks, helping to maintain intensity. The principle of progressive overload is fundamental to any strength training program, and simply means to continually do more over time (while maintaining good technique).

    Progression can take many forms, including a heavier weight, increasing the number of repetitions, increasing the number of sets, increasing the number of exercises, and reducing the rest between sets.
  • Don't go it alone

    The subjects were closely supervised by experienced exercise physiologists and physiotherapists throughout the study. This can be especially helpful for beginners, or for those who are struggling to progress.

    An exercise professional can design a training program to suit your specific needs, helping to boost results and reduce any risk of injury. If your budget is stretched, try group classes, or a one-off training session every few months to freshen things up
  • Mix it up

    Every 8 weeks, the subjects were introduced to a novel new exercise. Changing up your routine on a regular basis keeps your mind and body fresh, and prevents your muscles from adapting to the same exercises.

    There are a number of ways you can vary your strength training routine by alternating between body weight exercise, dumbbells, barbells, pin loaded machines, resistance band training and suspension training (think TRX)
Gates et al. BMC Geriatrics 2011, 11:19
Molecular Psychiatry (2016) 21, 1633–1642