Are you in your late 40s, 50s or 60s and worried about your poor memory and declining cognitive function? Do you often find yourself saying things like “I cannot remember where I put my car keys again?” or “I’ve forgotten what I’ve said to my kids for the umpteenth time this week!” and even “My memory is horrible nowadays!”. Regardless of how old you are, there are a myriad of techniques you can adopt to prevent the exacerbation of memory problems in order to protect your grey matter such as your eating and sleeping habits, exercise regime and other lifestyle factors. For the purpose of this article we’ll be focusing on exercise and in particular, taking a look at whether a regular strength training regime can assist in preventing, or even reversing, memory decline as we age.
What does the research say?
Emerging research primarily points towards a connection between cognition and measures of muscular strength and muscle mass that can be increased by a regular strength training regime1. The theory being that this type of exercise ultimately fires beneficial neurological processes that boost the health of your brain, memory and cognition2.
A 2014 study3 that included a total of 100 people, both males and females, between the ages of 55 to 86, who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI)4, were spilt into two groups, and prescribed either resistance training or calisthenics exercises twice a week for six weeks.
Participants in the study used weight machines and performed each exercise for four to six repetitions at 80 – 85% of their one-repetition maximum (1RM). The initial findings demonstrated that the participants in the resistance training group performed significantly better in the memory and cognition tests. In fact 48% of the whole group reversed their MCI and achieved perfectly normal scores on Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale at the end of the programme. The cognitive benefits lasted even 18 months after the study.
This however was not the case for participants in the other group. Their six week training did not make any noteworthy improvements in their mental abilities.
Two years later a follow up study5 was done on the same pool of participants. Brain scans were taken and it was found that there was an increase in the size of certain areas of the brain in the brains of the participants who were in the strength training group.
Supported by history
Many of the Greek philosophers dating back almost 2500 years ago insisted that their students engage in regular strength training exercises in order to keep them mentally fresh. Here are some quotes from them:
Socrates, “No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training…what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
Plato, “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”
And Hippocrates, the godfather of holistic wellness, used lifestyle modifications such as diet and of course exercise to treat and reverse diseases in his patients.
How often do I need to train to gain these memory boosting benefits?
Another long-term study on the effect on strength training and memory and cognition suggested that triweekly strength training has an even greater effect on cognition function and memory6. However, we think if you are pressed for time, two times per week should be an excellent start. For more info on training frequency please check out last week's blog.
As we mentioned at the start, there are other lifestyle factors that play pivotal roles in the decline of our memory and cognition as we age. However, such age-related memory decline can be prevented and even reversed if you have a regular strength training programme in place.
So in summary, if you are interested to reap the benefits strength training has on your mental abilities then, pay close to attention to the following recommendations.
Firstly use free weights, as opposed to machines, as they recruit more muscles and fire up the appropriate neurons that improve memory and cognition.
Secondly, engage in at least two to three 45 - 60 minute strength training sessions for a couple of months until you hit your initial strength and fitness goals. Thereafter, you may maintain those strength gains by at least training once a week in perpetuity.
Strength training is of course good for other reasons like weight loss and it's neuro-protective function. Frankly speaking, who does not want healthy brain especially as we get older? At the end of the day, staying mentally and physically fit is not only about adding more years to your life but rather, adding life to your years.
To your health, happiness and longevity,
The Levitise Team
1. The effects of strength training on memory in older adults, 2007. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16648652
2. Functional and/or structural brain changes in response to resistance exercises and resistance training lead to cognitive improvements - a systematic review, 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31333805
3. The study of mental and resistance training (SMART) study—resistance training and/or cognitive training in mild cognitive impairment: a randomized, double-blind, double-sham controlled trial, 2014. http://www.jamda.com/article/S1525-8610(14)00612-4/abstract
4. It is understood that people diagnosed with MCI generally experience a reduction in their cognitive abilities but are still capable of caring out their day to day activities without the supervision of a professional nurse or caretaker.
5. Mediation of cognitive function improvements by strength gains after resistance training in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: outcomes of the study of mental and resistance training, 2016. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jgs.14542
6. The effect of resistance training on cognitive function in the older adults: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30006762