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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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