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Bargain! Three for the price of one

June 5, 2012

Could building your muscles build your brain as well or at least slow it from falling apart? That’s the question that Dr. Norman Swan asked on the Health Report recently in Australia.

A Duty

I make myself go to the gym several times a week. Mark Twain said that if you did something you don’t want to do everyday you acquire the habit of doing your duty without pain.  Strange… doing something regularly in your own time that you don’t really want to do… but I know I feel so much better if I exercise, so I go.

I suppose it is my duty not to burden others as I get older,  and I dislike being dependent any way….. so dutiful it is. Resistance training may not only be keeping my creaking body in moderate shape but I may also be helping to prevent my brain from slowing…forgetting stuff, needing more time to work things out, sometimes just thinking “I can’t be bothered, someone else can do this!”… at my age the professionals call that MCI  (mild cognitive impairment), but it is a matter of degree and sometimes the result of the expectations of others. Agism in other words. However we do know that if there are actual signs of MCI some of us have a greater risk of developing dementia over the next 5 years.

Bring on the weights: don’t just go for a walk!

A recent 6 month study in Canada compared three groups of 70+ year olds: an aerobic walking group,  a resistant training group and a stretching/functional exercise group (the control group) They measured two primary areas: memory abilities and  decision making. This included the ability to plan and multi-task. They looked at the effect of the different forms of exercise in individuals with mild cognitive kind of impairments.

THE RESULTS: better ability to make decisions, and to remember a name associated with  a face.

Compared to the control group the resistance training group demonstrated a significant improvement in the area of executive function, their ability to make the appropriate decision given a particular circumstance.  And they had better associative memory. Associative memory is somewhat different from just simply remembering an item.  An item memory component would be: do you remember someone’s name?  Associative memory would be in the context of remembering the name and tie it to the face. The researchers saw an improvement in the resistance training group for the associative memory. And the benefits persisted.

 Why is resistance training with weights better than walking?

You actually have to learn new skills, count the reps, push yourself harder and therefore it’s not just blind exercise, there’s a thinking element in the exercise as well, testing your brain.

You might actually have to go to the gym for this benefit because you actually need a trainer to teach you new exercises, monitor things along with you, make sure you progress. The trainer is actually an element here which is quite important.

“Your journey  is to focus on what you’re doing, it’s not something you are just doing quite blindly and not paying attention to the task at hand so yes, I agree whether that is facilitated by another individual or you’re reminding yourself to  focus on the task I think that is a huge factor.  And the second component is that it needs to be progressive. If you look at previous literature in strength training and cognition there has been a number of other studies.  The ones that tend to have a negative effect are not progressive in nature, while if you look at studies that seem to be positive, the component is always progressive. Even for walking, to maximise the benefit  it does need to be of moderate intensity and progressive.”

Teresa Liu-Ambrose is at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where she also works in the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility.

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