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Why Strength Training is an Underutilized Brain Booster

Cathe Friedrich Strength Training

Physical health and mental health might seem like opposite sides of a coin but that’s not the case. Each affects the other, making it a two-way street. A healthy body can help you feel better mentally, and a healthy mind can make you more physically capable. Ideally, you want both. Strength training does double duty – it enhances mental and physical health. Plus, there’s even evidence that working your muscles against resistance boosts brainpower, mood, self-esteem, and outlook on life. All good things, right?

Aerobic exercise is traditionally the go-to strategy for improving one’s cardiovascular health, while resistance training is the ticket to improving muscle strength and size. Contrary to popular belief, your brain isn’t a muscle, but it can still benefit from strength training. Plus, there’s growing evidence that strength training is a brain-healthy pursuit, just as aerobic exercise is. Let’s look at what science shows about muscle building and brain health.

What Science Says about Exercise and Brain Health

Does science support the brain health benefits of strength training? In a study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, researchers combined data from 38 studies looking at the effects of exercise on brain health. The study also looked at the effects of cognitive training on brain aging. Their findings? Physical exercise enhanced the brain’s structural architecture, including the brain’s gray and white matter and increased connectivity between regions of the brain too.

This study included all forms of exercise and didn’t specifically look at strength training, but other studies show that strength training improves communication between regions of the brain. Strength training helps these regions better connect and share information in a way that’s beneficial for cognition.

Can Strength Training Help You Solve Problems?

Another study in adults aged 60 and over found that 12-weeks of strength training improved “fluid cognition,” the ability to assimilate information and solve unique problems. So, strength training could make you a better problem solver. Other research in older adults shows that those who strength trained could better remember words and images than those who didn’t work out.

And yet another exciting study carried out by Australian researchers found that strength training appeared to protect areas of the brain involved in cognition, like the hippocampus, from degeneration. The researchers found the protection persisted for up to a year after the subjects stopped strength training.

A hallmark of an aging brain is a loss of volume in this key structure involved in learning and memory. Some research also correlates greater physical strength with less mental decline over time. Your strength may be a marker for how quickly your brain ages. Stronger is better for your muscles, your health, and your brain.

The Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training

One of the benefits of any type of workout is the stress relief it offers. When you work out, your body produces endorphins. These chemicals make you feel energized and clear-headed. They also combat the effects of stressors like anxiety, depression, and insomnia by elevating mood and reducing negative thoughts.

The most pronounced endorphin release is in response to aerobic exercise. However, all forms of exercise affect brain neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, that affect mood. Getting fit also helps you sleep better, which is important for mood regulation and thinking clearly. It’s much easier to think clearly when you’re not exhausted after working out.

Strength Training May Slow Brain Aging

There’s another mechanism by which strength training protects against depression and anxiety. When you work your muscles against resistance, it increases the level of a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the hippocampus. Studies show people with depression experience volume loss in this part of the brain, and BDNF, triggered by strength training, stimulates the growth of new cells in this area to help preserve its function.

Strength training also builds self-esteem, giving you a sense of accomplishment that fosters well-being. Who doesn’t feel more capable and positive after a strength-training workout? Research shows strength training enhances self-esteem in adults of all ages, even those with depression. Studies are mixed as to whether it improves the symptoms of major depression, although some studies show significant benefits.

Get Started Today

Even if you don’t have weight equipment at home, you can start by doing body-weight exercises, like squats and push-ups. Resistance bands are another lightweight way to work muscles against resistance at home. Any time you work large muscle groups against resistance, even using your own body weight, you set about a sequence of events that’s beneficial for your mood.

The Bottom Line

Research suggests strength training can help you live a longer, healthier life. The benefits of strength training go beyond building muscle, improving balance and coordination, and lowering the risk of falls and broken bones. Building muscle strength and size is beneficial for brain function and mental health too. You need both for a happy, healthy life and for staying functional as you age.

The take-home message? Strength training is for everyone, not just bodybuilders and it’s important for a long and healthy life. It’s as beneficial for your brain as it is your physique.

References:

  • Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Volume 128, September 2021, Pages 511-533.
  • Lachman ME, Neupert SD, Bertrand R, Jette AM. The effects of strength training on memory in older adults. J Aging Phys Act. 2006 Jan;14(1):59-73. doi: 10.1123/japa.14.1.59. PMID: 16648652.
  • 12 weeks of strength training improves fluid cognition in older adults: A nonrandomized pilot trial. Published: July 22, 2021. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255018.
  • edu.au. “Strength training can help protect the brain from degeneration
  • com “Your brain on barbells: Could strength training help improve your mood?”
  • “Weight training may boost brain power – Harvard Health.” 01 Jan. 2017, health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/weight-training-may-boost-brain-power.
  • “Strength Training Improves Mental Focus, Brain Health.” 04 Jan. 2011, aarp.org/health/fitness/info-01-2011/stronger_muscles_stronger_brains.html.
  • “Resistance Training Improves Mental Health.” unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/RTandMentalHealth.html.
  • van Praag H. Exercise and the brain: something to chew on. Trends Neurosci. 2009 May;32(5):283-90. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2008.12.007. Epub 2009 Apr 6. PMID: 19349082; PMCID: PMC2680508.

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