Worried about mental decline? Weightlifting can help

    3 November 2016

    Light weightlifting twice a week could lead to improved memory function in older adults, according to research by the University of Sydney.

    The randomised double-blind trial, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found a causal link between resistance exercise and brain function.

    The researchers observed 100 men and women with mild cognitive impairment (a precursor to Alzheimer’s). The group was split in two. One half of the study group was asked to lift weights, and the other half did stretching exercises in supervised sessions.

    The participants in the strength-training groups made significant improvements in cognitive tests, and the benefits persisted 12 months after the sessions ended. That was not the case for the stretching group. MRI scans of those in the weightlifting group showed an increase in the size of areas of the brain associated with cognitive function.

    The study’s lead author, Yorgi Mavros, said: ‘The stronger people became, the greater the benefit for their brain. The more we can get people doing resistance training like weightlifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier ageing population. The key, however, is to make sure you are doing it frequently, at least twice a week, and at a high intensity.’

    The results of the study echo findings from 2012, which suggested that resistance training was associated with cognitive improvements in older women when compared with other types of physical activity.

    Instant analysis
    It is well known that exercise is very good for our health, in all types and at all ages, including helping to minimise the impact of early memory loss and cognitive impairment. What this particular, albeit small, study shows is that a strength-training regimen should now be considered as a cornerstone in trying to minimise memory loss.

    The study design was a randomised double-blind trial and so carries some gravitas, but only looked at 100 people with mild cognitive impairment so bigger trials will now be required.

    Having said that, these results are impressive, with those in the strength-training group having significant cognitive improvement compared to those assigned non-resistance exercises. In addition, these benefits appeared to persist a year after the supervised exercise sessions finished.

    It remains unclear why lifting weights should have this impact but work is now targeted at trying to determine more detailed exercise recommendations for maximum brain benefits. In the meantime, resistance exercise should be considered for people with mild memory problems whenever possible.
    Research score: 4/5