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Aerobic Exercise or Weight Training to Boost Brain Function?

Aer­o­bic exer­cise is the kind of exer­cise that has been con­sis­tent­ly shown to trig­ger the growth of both brain cells and new con­nec­tions between them, boost­ing cog­ni­tive func­tions. It has also been asso­ci­at­ed with low­er risks of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s Dis­ease. Is it the case that oth­er types of phys­i­cal exer­cise can also ben­e­fit the brain? Evi­dence is more lim­it­ed, but a new study sug­gests that weight train­ing may be a like­ly can­di­date to do so.

The Study

The study involved 86 women between the ages of 70 and 80 who had prob­a­ble Mild Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment (MCI). MCI is a con­di­tion where peo­ple have most­ly mem­o­ry prob­lems which are not severe enough to inter­fere with dai­ly life. It is often con­sid­ered to be the very ear­ly stage of Alzheimer’s Dis­ease.

The women were divid­ed into 3 groups: 1) a resis­tance train­ing group, 2) an aer­o­bic exer­cise group, and 3) a bal­ance and tone train­ing group. Each group exer­cised twice a week for six months.

Par­tic­i­pants’ cog­ni­tive skills were mea­sured with tests assess­ing exec­u­tive func­tions (such as atten­tion and inhi­bi­tion) and mem­o­ry. The brains of 22 of the par­tic­i­pants were also scanned using func­tion­al MRI.

The results showed that resis­tance train­ing improved both exec­u­tive func­tions and mem­o­ry per­for­mance. Brain scans demon­strat­ed increased blood flow to areas of the brain asso­ci­at­ed with the improved per­for­mance (such as the occip­i­tal and frontal regions of the brain).

In con­trast to pri­or stud­ies, there was no ben­e­fit of the aer­o­bic train­ing on cog­ni­tive per­for­mance (even though the car­dio­vas­cu­lar per­for­mance of the par­tic­i­pants in this group did improve).

What is new?

This study is one of the first ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als com­par­ing the effi­ca­cy of both resis­tance and aer­o­bic train­ing to improve cog­ni­tive func­tions.

It con­firms the results obtained a few years ago by the same team of researchers show­ing that 12 months of once- or twice-week­ly strength train­ing improved exec­u­tive func­tions in healthy women ages 65- to 75 years old for up to 1 year after the train­ing (Davis et al., 2010).

The nov­el­ty of the study is to show that after a short peri­od of time (6 months) the effects of strength train­ing can ben­e­fit cog­ni­tion, even in peo­ple who are already suf­fer­ing from cog­ni­tive impair­ment.

So what?

Head­lines claim­ing that “Weight train­ing pre­vents demen­tia” may be going a lit­tle too fast. The study shows that weight train­ing may boost cog­ni­tive func­tions that are high­ly sen­si­tive to the effect of age and dis­ease (the so-called exec­u­tive func­tions). The study does not show that risks of devel­op­ing demen­tia decrease for par­tic­i­pants in the weight train­ing group. More research is need­ed before such a claim can be made.

The absence of cog­ni­tive boost or brain change in the aer­o­bic train­ing group in this study is unclear at this time. Indeed, the evi­dence that aer­o­bic exer­cise trig­gers neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis and thus increas­es gray mat­ter vol­ume is numer­ous. Pri­or evi­dence has also shown that aer­o­bic exer­cise can boost cog­ni­tive skills in healthy old­er adults as well in peo­ple with MCI. Of note, the large and rig­or­ous 2010 meta-analy­sis con­duct­ed by the NIH con­clud­ed that aer­o­bic exer­cise was a fac­tor asso­ci­at­ed with decreased risks for both Alzheimer’s Dis­ease and cog­ni­tive decline (Williams et al., 2010). So there does not seem to have any ques­tions that aer­o­bic exer­cise can impact brain health. Its effect may be small­er or larg­er depend­ing on the inten­si­ty of the exer­cise, the age and the health and cog­ni­tive sta­tus of the par­tic­i­pants though. More research is need­ed to answer these ques­tions.

In sum phys­i­cal exer­cise is an impor­tant piece to solve the brain fit­ness puz­zle. Aer­o­bic exer­cise (in any form: hik­ing, swim­ming, danc­ing, fast walk­ing, etc.) and pos­si­ble weight train­ing should be part of the dai­ly habits of high­ly effi­cient brains.


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— This arti­cle was writ­ten by Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­ogy. Dr. Mich­e­lon was a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity in Saint Louis were she con­ducted sev­eral projects relat­ed to visu­al pro­cess­ing and mem­o­ry. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ulty at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity, teach­es Mem­ory Work­shops in the St Louis area and has recent­ly pub­lished Max Your Mem­o­ry.

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