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These Simple Exercises Could Help Preserve Brain Health

Mature woman at the gym

Want a cheap and easy way to improve your brain health? Try lifting weights a couple times a week.

A new study adds to evidence that light strength training — also called resistance training — may be key to maintaining a healthy brain. Because of the way strength training pumps blood to the brain, some researchers now think it goes beyond the benefits of aerobic exercise and helps preserve brain health as we age.

Teresa Liu-Ambrose and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver wanted to see whether resistance training could not only slow the progression of white matter lesions — a type of brain damage that is common in older adults and increases the risk of memory loss, dementia and stroke—but also help prevent falls, affect thinking skills and improve walking speed.

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The researchers randomly divided 54 women between ages 65 and 75 who showed signs of the brain lesions into three groups. One group did light upper- and lower-body exercises for an hour twice a week with trainers at a university gym. Another group did the same training once a week, and a third group, which acted as the control, met twice a week for an hour of stretching, balance and relaxation exercises. After a year, the researchers found that the group that did resistance training twice a week had fewer signs of the lesions than did the stretching group; those in the first group also maintained their walking abilities. The group that lifted weights once a week didn’t show a significant difference from the stretching group in terms of the lesions, but the weights-once-a-week group did walk more smoothly. None of the groups showed improvement on a word test for memory. The researchers published the study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

“We’ve been excited about this finding because there haven’t been other studies that show resistance training can slow the progression of white matter lesions,” said Liu-Ambrose, an associate professor of physical therapy and director of the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.

The study is part of a large, long-running exercise study with older women at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. The researchers identified the white matter lesions by doing brain scans of 155 older women participating in the study. These lesions are common by late middle age — affecting 85 percent of the population by age 80. Although the lesions usually don’t cause any symptoms, they are not only linked to memory problems and dementia but also impaired mobility and balance, diabetes and high blood pressure. Liu-Ambrose and her team think the lesions might help explain why older adults tend to have more problems walking, getting up and down, and generally moving around than other people do.

Previously, Canadian researchers found that women who did light strength training at least once a week showed a 15 percent improvement on mental skills tests compared with a group that did weekly balance and toning exercises. An earlier study also found that moderate to vigorous exercise was linked to fewer white matter lesions.

Why would resistance training have more brain-health benefits than aerobic exercise does? Liu-Ambrose thinks it may have to do with the way strength training pumps blood to the brain. Aerobic exercise — the kind that gets your heart pumping via running, swimming or bicycling — usually pumps blood through the body in a steady stream, she said. Strength training, however, pumps blood in bursts. One theory is that “the sustained force may not be as beneficial as delivering the blood in pulses,” she said, adding that resistance training “can have a huge impact on cardiovascular risk factors such as diabetes and high blood pressure.” Since research is increasingly concluding that brain health is tied to heart and blood vessel health, it is likely, too, that improving heart health through strength training helps the brain.

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The study was conducted only in women, said Liu-Ambrose, but strength training is good for men as well. If you — like the women in this study — haven’t done any strength, resistance or weight training lately (or at all), it’s never too late to start. “Even just doing two sets of 10 reps of squats without any additional weight other than body weight — they’ll feel it the next day,” Liu-Ambrose said. It’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor or physical therapist before you start a new exercise program, especially if you have health conditions such as arthritis.

Tips on how to get started

• Try these simple exercises — chair squats, wall push-ups and toe stands — developed by Tufts University for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• Once you’ve mastered those, the Mayo Clinic has a series of free videos showing how to do simple strength-training exercises such as biceps curls, squats and triceps kickbacks.

Photo: Susan Chiang/iStock

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