Pumping iron for a fitter brain: Weight training has surprising cognitive rewards

By Dr. Faith Coleman

One of the most important things you can do for your brain is to move your body. People who exercise have less risk for brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and depression. It isn’t just cardiorespiratory exercise, like dancing or running, that your brain needs. Weightlifting should get more attention.

Studies show that resistance training boosts brain health. Weightlifting improves brain function, more so in the elderly. Cognitive decline can slow down with resistance training. Weightlifting may also lessen depressive symptoms.

Weightlifting is beneficial for almost every health issue. No drug achieves the same combination of benefits. The British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that resistance training (i.e., muscle-strengthening) is inversely associated with medical disorders like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. This means that the more you do, the lower your risk for these diseases.

Weight training improves the brain’s ability to access and process glucose. People with disordered metabolism are at greater risk for dementia and depression. Those with Type 2 diabetes are at a 77-percent higher risk for depression than are people with normal blood sugars.

Unstable blood sugar for long durations is associated with inflammation, which damages the brain. Fluctuations in your blood sugar are associated with insulin resistance – meaning brain cells have trouble getting the energy they need.

A session of resistance training decreases blood glucose and insulin levels for up to 24 hours. It lowers three-month blood sugar measurements (HgbA1c) in people at risk for developing diabetes. It also increases insulin sensitivity in the elderly, according to the Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness.

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The function of the immune system is currently a top interest in health. Chronic inflammation is of peak interest as one of the forces driving disease. It turns out that weight training and the immune system are intimately associated, and weight training can be of great benefit.

In particular, molecules called myokines that affect the brain are produced by the muscles. The important principle it illustrates is that weight training affects the levels of multiple chemicals produced by muscles, which are beneficial to the brain.

One of the crucial myokines is brain-derived-neurotrophic-factor (BDNF). Others include insulin-like-growth factor 1 (IGF-1), interleukin 6 (IL-6), and irisin. They have favorable effects on the immune system. BDNF is strongly tied to neuroplasticity, the ability of brain cells to strengthen their connections and even generate new brain cells and connections.

Get the benefits of resistance training

Like everything else in long-term health promotion, brain health strategies should be designed with the goal of sustainability. That means avoiding injury and creating habits that you’ll enjoy for months to years. Here are some tips:

  • Start light; build your way up. Heavy weights can be beneficial, but you can get a great workout with lighter weights.
  • You don’t have to lift for hours. Even a few minutes of training a day can provide benefits.
  • Consider working with a trainer.
  • Classes can be good motivators, and spending time with others is a brain booster.
  • Try resistance bands. They can customize training to your needs. Resistance bands are effective at building muscle and are linked to better mood.
  • Adequate protein is key to muscle growth. If you’re new to resistance training, you may need to up your protein intake.

Source: Study Finds

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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