Exercising your body with walking, running, or other aerobic exercise is known to be good for your brain. Now a study suggests that light resistance training with weights may also slow the age-related shrinking of parts of your brain.
Neurologists have found that most people start developing age-related holes or lesions in the white matter of their brain by late middle age. The white matter of the brain connects and passes messages between different brain regions.
These holes usually have no symptoms at first, but as they widen and multiply with age, they can affect thinking. Older people with many lesions tend to have worse cognitive abilities than those whose white matter has fewer holes.
A few studies have suggested that regular, moderate aerobic exercise may slow the progression of these holes in older people.
To test whether weight training could help slow the progression of these lesions, researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver studied a large group of generally healthy women between the ages of 65 and 75. They were already were enrolled in a brain study and had had at least one brain scan. Fifty-four of the women had lesions in their white matter. The researchers tested their gait speed and stability. They were then randomly assigned to either a once-weekly program of light upper- and lower-body weight training, the same weight-training routine but twice a week, or a twice-weekly regimen of stretching and balance training. All of the women followed their exercise routines for a year.
After a year, their brains were scanned again and their walking ability re-assessed. The women in the control group, who had concentrated on balance and flexibility, showed progression in the number and size of the lesions in their white matter and their walking gait became slower. So did the women who had weight trained once per week. But the women who had lifted weights twice a week had significantly less shrinkage and holes in their white matter. Their lesions had grown and multiplied somewhat, but not nearly as much as women in the other two groups. They also walked more quickly and smoothly than the women in the other two groups.
However, the study did not determine whether differences in the women's white matter translated into meaningful differences in the ability to think.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.