The amazing ways strength training benefits your brain
Updated: Jul 5
20 or 30 years ago who'd have thought that lifting weights could be good for brain?
In recent years it’s been well documented that strength training is beneficial on a physical level for problems such as diabetes and bone density, however courtesy of an increasing amount of research on muscle and the brain it’s being revealed that strength training positively impacts the most important organ in some amazing ways.
This is seriously remarkable and useful stuff and you don’t have to become a behemoth to reap the rewards.
Here is what’s being discovered about lifting weights, muscle and the brain;
It promotes secretion of a chemical that prevents brain cell death, is involved in growing new brain cells and importantly improves mood and feelings of well-being.
Typically with age people lose muscle, resulting in lowered levels of neurotrophins which positively effect mood and wellbeing. Conversely as you build muscle through strength training (which can be done at ANY age) those neurotrophin levels go up and of course this contributes to feeling pretty damn good. Not only that the health and function of brain cells also improves.
This has obvious implications for depression and many people have reported improved mental wellness after lifting weights both post workout and more broadly across weeks and months.
On depression and strength there are also studies (1 , 2) which point to a relationship between lack of hand grip strength and depression, admittedly it could in part because those with severe depression aren’t exercising because they are depressed and/or are physically weaker as a consequence of the physical effects of depression. Nonetheless, working on your strength is clearly a pretty good idea for mental health- we now know it directly effects the chemistry of your brain. Results in increase in size in areas of the brain
A loss of brain mass is associated with dementia, maintaining good brain mass is of course beneficial and strength training is being shown to increase the size of certain parts of the brain. It’s pretty detailed but the studies are showing that these areas enlarged through lifting weights are different to those that get bigger and better through aerobic exercise. Ideally for brain health you’d do both forms of exercise to get the optimal benefit. The World Health Organisation have recognised the benefit of strength and aerobic exercise as reflected by having included both in the physical activity recommendations.
Get moving and lifting to build body and brain!
Improve cognitive (brain) function
Training with weights twice a week has been shown (1 , 2)to improve cognitive performance. The greater the strength increase the greater the brain function improvement. This has yet to be shown to improve memory however it is suggested that doing aerobic exercise and cognitive training in addition, will collectively provide a complimentary range of benefits to the brain. It should also be noted that you need to stick with it, as 4 weeks away from the gym shows a reduction in the benefits to the brain.
Leg muscle and strength really matters too
Muscle wasting of the legs through inactivity such as bed rest is being shown to have a detrimental effect on brain activity as well, conversely weight bearing exercise triggers the brain to generate brain cells.
While weight bearing exercise is basically any activity done standing up, strength training is really going to both get the muscles contracting and increasing in size.
More to come
I believe Sydney Uni are planning a study involving the use of strength and training and HIIT (which has been shown to significantly improve mitochondria function). There are also plans afoot to further investigate the relationships between strength, muscle, brain size and brain function. Stay tuned as the recommendations are sure to become more specific and hence the prescription for strength training for brain function more optimal.
Putting it into practice
Weight training, strength training and resistance training are all the same thing. To get the benefits for your brain it doesn’t really matter if you lift free weights (barbells, dumbells or kettebells), your own bodyweight (push ups, dips, pull ups etc) or machines in a gym.
What does matter though is consistency- once per week won’t be enough, 2 will do the trick and 3 would be fantastic. If the sessions are purposeful and fairly intense 20-30 minutes is enough. Having progression by increasing weights or repetitions matters as well.
As mentioned doing this in conjunction with some cardiovascular exercise will ensure you get a host of benefits not just for brain but also for body.
If you consider the World Health Organisation physical activity recommendations of 2 x strength training sessions per week and 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week you could put together a really effective routine by exercising 3 times per week in the form of: * 20 minutes of strength training * followed by 25 minutes of running/cycling/rowing/boxing * Finished off with 10 minutes of stretching. Contact me if you need the help of an experienced personal trainer to put together an effective program.
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