Cardiovascular exercises like running, jogging have been shown to increase mental health. But recent studies have also suggested that regular resistance training (strength training and weightlifting) can provide a host of benefits to our mental health—such as improving an individual’s memory, slowing the onset of dementia, and providing a boost to our overall cognitive performance.
The Connection Between Exercise And Brain
In the 1990s, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif, discovered that exercise provides benefits to the brain. The scientists examined the impact on brain activity in mice by having one group ‘exercise’ on running wheels while another group remained sedentary. The results showed that the mice that exercised produced far more cells in the area of the brain controlling memory creation than animals that didn’t run, as well as performing better on subsequent memory tests.
How Does Exercise Help The Mind?
When we exercise, our body releases molecules that tell us to grow more muscle, tendon, ligament and bone cells, and make the ones we have even more efficient and powerful. Essentially, our body adapts to the different stresses we put it under so that we are better prepared the next time that same stress comes up. These molecules also affect your brain cells and blood vessels, encouraging more growth, power, and efficiency.
Some of these molecules include IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), a protein that promotes the survival of existing cells and encourages the growth of new ones. It is believed that the brain must have a good amount of IGF-1 in order to promote
–Angiogenesis (a physiological process through which new blood vessels are formed from pre-existing vessels)
–Neurogenesis (responsible for populating the growing brain with neurons).
– Another hormone that is released is called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF helps to promote the survival of neurons in the brain and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. The hormone is found in the highest quantities in the part of the brain that is linked with learning and processing new material, as well as in the cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that allows you to store memories and execute higher thinking.
Furthermore, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a principal investigator at the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia, has speculated in an article in the New York Times that resistance training strengthens the heart—thus improving blood flow to the brain and improving cognitive function. She adds that because you actively have to think about proper form and learning the technique when weightlifting, there can be an upsurge in brain usage.
Young Adults Can Benefit From Weightlifting
New research from the Georgia Institute of Technology finds that younger adults who lift weights not only strengthen their muscles but their brains, too. The best part is that it only takes a session or two to get the benefits of better memory.
Researchers found that a mere 20-minute weight training session could improve long-term memory in the participants.
According to lead researcher Lisa Weinberg: “Our study indicates that people don’t have to dedicate large amounts of time to give their brain a boost.” In this experiment, 46 volunteers were randomly assigned to one of two groups—one active, and one passive. Initially, all of the participants viewed a series of 90 images, classified as either positive, neutral, or negative. Afterward, they were asked to recall as many images as they could.
Next, the active group was told to do 50 leg extensions at personal maximum effort using a resistance exercise machine. The passive participants were asked to simply sit and let the machine move their leg for them. Two days later, the participants were again shown a series of images, including ones they’d not seen previously. Interestingly, even though it was two days since they performed the leg extensions, those in the active group had markedly improved image recall.
“The researchers found about 50 percent of the original photos were recalled by the passive group while the active group remembered about 60 percent of the images. All of the participants were better at recalling the positive and negative images than the neutral images, but this was even truer for the active participants. The researchers suggest that this is because people are more likely to remember emotional experiences following short-term stress.
Weightlifting Can Help Older Men And Women
Previous research in older men and women (50 to 85 years old) has found that a brief workout improves memory due to the exercise-induced release of the stress hormone norepinephrine. Scientists have long known that the hormone, a chemical messenger in the brain, plays a strong role in memory.
A 2013 study conducted by the University of British Columbia examined the impact of resistance training in areas of on conflict resolution, attention, and memory in women aged between 70-80 that were suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is a condition where people have memory problems—though they are not severe enough to interfere with daily life. However, it is often considered to be the very early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, 86 women were randomly assigned to three groups:
-26 participants did resistance training, such as lifting weights, to build muscle strength.
-24 walked outdoors in an aerobics program.
-27 took basic balance and toning classes as a control.
In advance of the trial, all of the women performed baseline memory tests. The exercise classes were held twice weekly over the course of six months. After six months, the women in the toning group scored worse on the memory tests than they had at the start of the study. Their cognitive impairment had grown. But the women who had exercised, either by walking or weight training, performed better on almost all of the cognitive tests after six months than they had before.
The researchers claimed that their results showed that resistance training can improve both your cognitive performance and your brain function. What is so unique about these findings is that they show that strength training can benefit our executive function and associative memory—two processes that are highly sensitive to the effects of aging and neurodegeneration (and ones that are usually damaged in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease).