Strength TrainingWant a healthier brain? Then work your muscles!

It might seem counter-intuitive, but strengthening your muscles does indeed strengthen your mental function and also help stave of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). How is this possible? Well, in the first place, getting exercise of any kind is beneficial to the brain, because exercise elevates your heart rate, and thereby improves blood flow to all organs in the body, including brain. Improving blood flow helps the brain in many different ways. One way is by increasing the delivery of oxygen, which your brains uses for energy. In fact, while the brain accounts for less than 2% of a person’s weight, it consumes 20% of the body’s energy in the form of oxygen [1].

Improving blood flow also increases the delivery of glucose, which the body uses to deliver energy to different tissues. This is key, because decreased glucose utilization is a common feature of AD. Indeed, AD is often diagnosed by evaluating the amount of glucose uptake by the brain, which reflects the underlying activity of neurons (see Figure).

All the aforementioned benefits of weight lifting, while helpful to brain function, only occur while lifting weights.  But there are much more important intermediate-term and long-term benefits, as well. Intermediate-term benefits accrue because weight lifting actually changes the patterns of gene expression in your body—that is, lifting weights changes which proteins and enzymes in your body get “turned on” and by how much. In particular, weight lifting turns on the expression of antioxidant enzymes [2], which are responsible for removing harmful free-radicals that promote aging [3] and accelerate the development of AD [4]. And in the long run, keeping the muscles of your body healthy keeps a person active and more fully engaged in life.

There is an enormous body of literature that has examined how weight lifting benefits cognitive performance, both in healthy adults and in people with mild cognitive impairment, a common precursor to AD. Four very good studies were featured in Time magazine in 2012, and can be read here:

So do your brain a favor, and build your muscles!

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  1. Rachel ME, Gusnard DA. Appraising the brain’s energy budget. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 Aug 6;99(16):10237-9. Link
  2. Berzosa C, Cebrián I, Fuentes-Broto L, Gómez-Trullén E, Piedrafita E, Martínez-Ballarín E, López-Pingarrón L, Reiter RJ, García JJ. Acute exercise increases plasma total antioxidant status and antioxidant enzyme activities in untrained men. J Biomed Biotechnol. 2011;2011:540458. Link
  3. Golden TR, Hinerfeld DA, Melov S. Oxidative stress and aging: beyond correlation. Aging Cell. 2002 Dec;1(2):117-23. Link
  4. Murakami K, Murata N, Noda Y, Tahara S, Kaneko T, Kinoshita N, Hatsuta H, Murayama S, Barnham KJ, Irie K, Shirasawa T, Shimizu T. SOD1 (copper/zinc superoxide dismutase) deficiency drives amyloid β protein oligomerization and memory loss in mouse model of Alzheimer disease. J Biol Chem. 2011 Dec 30;286(52):44557-68. Link