You’ve probably seen elderly family members and friends slowly lose their memories, and you’re determined to do everything that you can to stay sharp.
But if you think that keeping your brain healthy is something that’s really difficult or time-consuming, then I’ve got some very exciting news to share with you today.
There’s a trick, according to a new study…and it’s not hard…nor is it very time-consuming.
The secret lies in strength training, according to Canadian researchers.
A SMARTER WORKOUT
They found that after six months of twice-weekly, hour-long workouts, people who performed strength training had better memory and brain function, compared with those who did moderate to brisk walking and those who did balance, stretching and relaxation movements (the control).
Over the course of the study, the control group showed no improvement on any of the following measures, but check out how much the strength-training group outperformed the aerobic group…
- The strength-training group showed a 17% improvement in the brain’s executive function, which controls planning, organizing, strategizing and managing time and space, whereas the aerobic group improved just 2%!
- In terms of associative memory function (the type of memory that links information together, as in matching an acquaintance’s name with his or her face), the aerobic group improved 47%. But that paled in comparison to the improvement made by those in the strength-training group—92%!
- Brain imaging of the strength-training group members showed that three regions of their brains associated with cognitive behavior had become more active. Members in the aerobic exercise group, however, did not see any improvements in this area.
The study’s lead author, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PhD, PT, can only speculate as to why strength training came out on top. One reason may be physiological. For example, strength training may reduce systemic inflammation, increase growth factors that promote neuronal growth and maintain insulin sensitivity (conditions such as diabetes increase your risk for dementia). It may also be that during strength training, the exerciser must constantly monitor his or her actions, including breathing properly, counting the number of reps and sets and using correct form. Walking and balance/stretching/relaxation exercises, on the other hand, are more automatic. Since you don’t have to pay attention as much while doing them, the moves put fewer demands on the brain.
BUILD MUSCLE—AND BRAIN POWER
To boost your memory and cognitive function, Dr. Liu-Ambrose said to incorporate strength training into your workout schedule. Now, strength training shouldn’t replace aerobic exercises or balance/stretching/relaxation exercises, she said—those types of workouts are critical for other reasons, such as improving heart function and flexibility and reducing stress. Instead, strength training should be added to your routine if you don’t already do it.
As I mentioned earlier, study subjects performed strength training twice a week, an hour at a time. But if that’s too much of a time commitment (or if that’s too much for you to handle, physically, right now), even adding smaller amounts of strength training to your routine is likely to help your brain a little, said Dr. Liu-Ambrose. Here’s how she suggests getting started…
- Warm up: To prevent injury or strain, warm up for at least 10 minutes with light aerobic activity that will elevate your heart rate, such as brisk walking, jogging, biking or doing jumping jacks.
- Build strength: To improve strength in all the major muscle groups, study subjects used dumbbells (starting with two to five pounds) weight lifting machines or body weight resistance (such as push-ups, lunges or squats, for example). You can see examples of which exercises to try through this video prepared by the research team:
How many exercises you can handle during one workout depends on your level of fitness, so ask a trainer—it’s best to start with only a few exercises and then gradually add more as you get stronger. Try performing two sets of each exercise, doing six to eight reps in each set, and resting for one minute in between sets. The trainer can advise you on correct form and provide guidance about when it’s time to progress to heavier weights.
- Cool down: As with the warm-up, slow down your heart rate with at least 10 minutes of light aerobic activity. Then, to prevent stiffness, gently stretch the muscles that you exercised.
And enjoy your brain power!