Strength training increased the brain function of a group of older women according to a new study published this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Significant improvements were seen in executive functioning skills, including selective attention and conflict resolution. Strength training may be an effective way to prevent the decline in mental function associated with aging.
Cognitive decline among older adults is a pressing health care issue. Many adults dread, fear, or already live with the realities of mild cognitive impairment and dementia. Research into pharmacological interventions (i.e. drugs) continues and we search for “cures”. But the cognitive decline of old age need not be our destiny. The Canadian researchers were motivated to find effective primary prevention strategies for age-associated cognitive decline.
The researchers noted that previous studies indicated that physical activity might limit our spiral down towards forgetfulness and senility. These previous studies did not differentiate between aerobic activity and resistance training. Further investigations into aerobic exercise (running, walking, whatever that gets your heart pumping) have shown a that aerobic training enhances brain and cognitive function. Aerobic exercise was even shown to spur the creation of new brain cells that appear biochemically resistant to stress (and we all know stress is a major component of aging.)
Less research had been done on the effect of strength training. A promising study in 2007 showed that seniors improved memory performance and verbal concept formation after resistance training. ¹ The researchers asked themselves if perhaps strength training improved a wider range of brain functions.
The researchers studied the effect of resistance (strength) training on brain function.
155 women, aged 65 to 75 years. The women lived independently in Vancouver and were receiving neither estrogen nor testosterone therapy.
The researchers randomly assign each women to one of three groups:
The assessors were blinded to which group the women had been assigned.
Used a progressive, high intensity protocol.
6-8 repetitions; 2 sets
Resistance (weights) increased as exercises completed with proper form and without discomfort.
Included: “stretching exercises, range of-motion exercises, basic core-strength exercises including kegels (ie, exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles), balance exercises, and relaxation techniques.
Key balance exercises included
Other than body weight, no additional loading (eg, hand weights or resistance bands) was applied to any of the exercises. There is no evidence that these exercises improve cognitive function.”
(from the research paper)
Over 52 weeks. (2007-2008)
Executive functioning is the fancy name for a set of cognitive skills.
Executive functioning is traditionally believed to be located in the frontal lobes, or in the prefrontal cortex. Located behind your forehead, this part of the brain experienced explosive growth in our evolution from apes to humans.
These skills are exemplified by an executive and his secretary. Skills such as planning, decision-making, organizing information, impulse control (initiation and inhibition), working memory, selective attention, and multitasking. Your ability to make phone calls while you research the web, prepare coffee, and feed the dog is an example of multi-tasking. Your ability to figure out what to pay attention to in this media/information saturated world (think: Times Square) is selective attention. Your ability to remember a telephone long enough to dial it is working memory. Your ability to resist the temptation of a second dessert is impulse-control. Your ability to decide which sandwich you’ll have off the new lunch menu is decision-making. Your ability to plan tomorrow’s schedule or to plan for a house purchase are planning.
In sum, executive functioning is ESSENTIAL to your daily life.
Think of all the things teenagers are famous for: poor decision making (did you really believe it was a good idea to place the cat on skateboard and send it down a hill?) ; risky behavior (inability to decide and appreciate consequences) ; impulsivity (lack of inhibition, not seeing or worried about consequences); less inhibition ; distracted- or spacey-ness.
It is believed that the prefrontal region in teenage or adolescent brain functions less fully relative to adult brains. Instead, the more emotional regions are more active in younger brains than in adults. So the answer to the cat-skating-down-the-hill question is: yes….it seemed like a good idea at the time.
In the research, the components of executive function were measured:
(For a description of the Stroop test and Stroop effect and to try it out).
(In this test you find and draw a trail connecting letters and numbers, alternating letters and numbers in alphabetical and numeric order. i.e. 1-A-2-B-3-C etc. Again, like the Stroop test, what matters is the difference in difficulties for various orders.)
(In this test you report back the exact sequence of list of numbers. If the tester says 2-6-1-8, you say 2-6-1-8. The list of numbers grow increasingly longer. Then test is repeated with a new set of numbers, except this time you must report back the list backwards. If the tester says 5-7-3-0, you say 0-3-7-5. Again, what matters is the difference in scores between the forward and backwards version of the test.
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in order to understand the wider range of effects resistance training.
The women who did the strength training experienced a significant improvement in their cognitive functioning scores at the end of the trial on the Stroop test (selective attention and conflict resolution)
It’s good to note that improvements may not be seen for some time, so not to be discouraged. On the other hand, we are creatures of instant gratification and instant rewards. Many people will not wait so long. Ask yourself: is 6 more months of exercise worth 20 or 30 years of mental impairment and reduced independence?
1xweek = 12.6% improvement
2xweek = 10.9% improvement
So if you can exercise twice a week, great! But if you miss one day, don’t throw the whole plan out–do it once a week. You still get tremendous benefit.
References and further reading
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