Aerobic exercise may be the kind of workout most closely associated with brain health benefits. Think about the circulation boost you get from a brisk walk or game of tennis. But strength training with weights, machines, resistance bands or your own body weight (think push-ups) also may help improve cognition.
It turns out that the benefits of strength training aren’t all that different from those associated with aerobic exercise, explains Louisa Sylvia, PhD, director of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Bipolar Clinic and Research Program, as well as director of health and wellness at the Red Sox Foundation.
Though there isn’t a lot of research confirming strength training’s benefits for brain function, Dr. Sylvia suggests that any exercise that gets your heart pumping is good for your health. And as the saying goes, “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”
Brain tissue requires a robust and consistent flow of blood to provide oxygen and other nutrients. Giving your muscles a workout in the gym or at home can certainly help.
“It is suspected that strength training, similar to aerobic exercise, helps improve brain function by increasing one’s heart rate,” Dr. Sylvia says. “This improves transportation of nutrients throughout the body, helping to spur healthy brain and body function.”
Strength Training Builds Stronger Self-Esteem
Toning your muscles can affect your emotional health and outlook, too. Dr. Sylvia notes that feeling stronger and more physically fit can boost self-esteem and confidence.
“Strength training is the most robust way to increase muscle mass, which is a visible pay-off and can help improve individuals’ self-mastery and self-perception,” she says. “Increased muscle mass can also help to avoid injuries, especially as we age and have more difficulty with balance.”
For older adults in particular, a regimen that includes aerobic, strength, flexibility and balance exercises may go a long way in keeping you healthy and avoiding falls and other incidents with potentially serious consequences. Your healthcare provider may be able to assess your health and recommend an exercise program suited to your needs and fitness level.
Starting and Sticking with It
The types of exercises you do are less important than simply staying physically active. The key is to be careful at first, especially if you’re new to exercising regularly.
“Start any new program slowly, and build gradually,” Dr. Sylvia advises. “For example, begin with low weight and more repetitions. One myth is that low weight is not as helpful as using bigger weights. This is not true. Lower weights and more repetitions can help you avoid injury and help with toning.”
Keep in mind that strength training doesn’t require barbells and membership in an expensive health club. Your local senior center or community center may have machines and equipment that can give your muscles a workout.
Resistance bands can be relatively inexpensive and can be taken anywhere. They allow you to do strength-training exercises at home or when travelling. Push-ups, lunges and even climbing stairs require no equipment, but are effective strength-training exercises.
Dr. Sylvia adds, however, that changing up your routine alternating bicycling and brisk walking during the week, for example can help keep you motivated and committed to your workouts.
“It is important to include variety in any exercise plan to improve overall brain and body function,” she says. “Variety, aerobic and strength training also allows muscles to rest and can be more engaging for people rather than doing the same exercise activities every time. It is important that people find what works for them, as sticking with an exercise plan is the most important part.”
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