Ditch the treadmill to boost your brain health

Feb 14, 2020
New research suggests that strength training protects the brain from degeneration. Source: Getty.

It’s a widely-known fact that lifting weights can help build muscle mass and stronger bones, but now Australian researchers have found that strength training can help protect the brain from degeneration too.

The research published in NeuroImage: Clinical found that six months of strength training can protect areas of the brain particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease for at least 12 months afterwards.

For the study, the University of Sydney researchers conducted a clinical trial of older people at high risk of Alzheimer’s disease due to mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is a slight decline in one’s memory or the ability to think clearly. People with MCI are at a one-in-ten risk of developing dementia within a year.

Study participants were randomly split into groups — computerised brain training, strength training, and combined computer and strength training, which they did for just six months followed by their usual activity for 12 months. Participants were assessed via MRIs at the start of the study, after six months and then again at 18 months.

The study found that strength training led to cognitive improvements in people with MCI. Meanwhile, degeneration in the hippocampus — the part of the brain that stores memories — was also largely prevented in the strength training group.

“Our research shows that strength training can protect some hippocampal subregions from degeneration or shrinkage for up to 12 months after the training has stopped,” lead researcher Dr Kathryn Broadhouse said.

“Hippocampal segmentation is difficult because the borders between structures are sometimes unclear and even anatomists will debate where to draw the line, so we restricted our analysis to those subregions where the data is consistent.”

Meanwhile Professor Michael Valenzuela, senior author of the study, believes the findings should change the dementia prevention message.

“This is the first time any intervention — medical or lifestyle — has been able to slow and even halt degeneration in brain areas particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease over such a long time,” he said.

“Given this was also linked to protection from cognitive decline, the message is clear: resistance exercise needs to become a standard part of dementia risk-reduction strategies.”

Incorporating resistance exercise into your routine  

In simple terms, resistance training is made up of strength-building moves that use some kind of weight to provide resistance. Resistance, that feeling that your muscles are pushing against something, can be provided by traditional weights such as dumbbells, bands and even your own body weight. Start by adding a few repetitions of these simple exercises to your fitness regime:

  • Squats: A lower body exercise that mainly targets the thighs and glutes
  • Lunges: These work several muscles in your lower body, including hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core
  • Push-ups: Beneficial for building upper body strength as they target the chest, shoulders, and triceps
  • Dips: A type of weight-training exercise that requires you to lift your body weight with your triceps.

A quick search of the internet, particularly YouTube, will bring up plenty of demonstrations of how to do these exercises.

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

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