No, your brain isn’t a muscle. But it still benefits when you engage in regular physical exercise. The brain-related benefits of participating in strength training activities such as weight lifting and resistance training was the subject of a clinical trial conducted at the University of Sydney.
The study was published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical under the title “Hippocampal plasticity underpins long-term cognitive gains from resistance exercise in MCI.” Lead analyst Dr. Kathryn Broadhouse said:
…strength training can protect some hippocampal subregions from degeneration or shrinkage for up to 12-months after the training has stopped.
The study was conducted amongst older adults selected randomly to participate in six months of specialized activities of three different types — computerised brain training, a combination of computerised and strength training, and strength training alone — followed by a year of the participants’ typical activity. Researchers used MRI scans of participants’ brains at three points over an 18-month period to learn what was happening.
Participants who participated in strength training showed shrinkage in the hippocampal regions of their brain that ranged from zero to one or two percent. That finding was compared to members of the control group who performed no strength training at all. In that group, shrinkage of three to four percent was seen in the brain’s hippocampus regions.
The study’s focus on the hippocampal region of the brain was significant for at least two reasons. First, the hippocampus is understood to be a part of the brain that is essential to learning and memory. Second, the hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to being damaged in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Any indicators of strategies that can support hippocampal function or decrease hippocampal shrinkage are significant news in the fight against dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
While few would be surprised that exercise is important for health, the University of Sydney study focused specifically on strength exercises. Strength exercises are resistance-based exercises commonly performed using gym equipment or free weights (barbells or dumbells). In this study, results were observed based on participants who did strength training for 90 minutes weekly, spread across two or just one session.
As always, anyone planning a new exercise regimen should consult their physician. Now, perhaps, that consultation should be even more specific. Discuss the particular exercises you have in mind, and ask for advice about how they may help your brain fight degeneration.