How Lifting Weights Can Make You Smarter

Hitting the gym instead of the books? It may be OK.

Grab those dumbbells. Muscleheads may have gotten a bad rap.

If living long and prosperous is your aim, weightlifting just might be your golden ticket. A new study published in The Journal of The American Geriatrics Society found that lifting weights twice a week can have an impact on slowing the aging process of the brain as we grow older.

While we’ve known for some time that a regular exercise regimen is good for our health, until now, most studies were focused on cardiovascular aerobic activity like running and walking. But as it turns out, anaerobic activity like weight training, can slow the lesions that form in the white matter of the brain—the areas associated with cognitive function like thinking and memory.

As we age, these lesions begin to appear quite normally, but a lack of physical activity can widen the lesions and cause them to multiply, leading to memory loss or even dementia, according to various neurological studies. Further studies have shown that white matter lesions may have a direct correlation with unsteady, slower walking, theoretically due to muscles which have not maintained their strength over time.

Teresa Liu-Ambrose from the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia tested whether or not other forms of exercise like strength training had an impact on slowing the aging process in the brain. She tested her theory on women in good health, ranging from age 65 to 75 over the course of a year.

The New York Times has the full report:

The women in the control group, who had concentrated on balance and flexibility, showed worrying progression in the number and size of the lesions in their white matter and in the slowing of their gaits.

So did the women who had weight trained once per week.

But those who had lifted weights twice per week displayed significantly less shrinkage and tattering of their white matter than the other women. Their lesions had grown and multiplied somewhat, but not nearly as much.

They also walked more quickly and smoothly than the women in the other two groups.

These findings suggest that weight training can beneficially change the structure of the brain, but that “a minimum threshold of exercise needs to be achieved,” Dr. Liu-Ambrose said.

Visiting the gym once per week is probably insufficient. But twice per week may suffice.

Whatever the reason, exercise, including weight training, clearly “has benefit for the brain,” Dr. Liu-Ambrose said. “However we are just really now gaining an appreciation for how impactful exercise can be.”

But what exactly is happening on a cellular level? How could the number of reps we do impact the level of our IQ?

Prevention offers some insight:

Researchers have a few different theories: Some think it’s because strength training increases the blood flow to your brain, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to your nervous system. Others point to higher levels of the brain-boosting IGF-1. Or, it could be because resistance exercise increases your mood, and past research has shown us that for older adults, a better mood is linked with better cognitive performance.

Why wait until middle age—there’s no time like the present to start reversing the signs of aging from the inside out. We could all benefit from a boost in our brainpower, regardless of our white matter status.

As for grey matter, it’s been studied and shown that a regular meditation practice can lengthen our telomeres—the protective ends of our chromosomes that protect our cells from deteriorating—and increase grey matter in the brain as well. So here’s to dumbbells and swift gaits, a big, compassionate OM, and to remembering what we ate for breakfast, well into our golden years.

Photo by Jake Laub

andrea_rice_headshot300pxAndrea Rice is the Practice and Community Editor for Wanderlust Media. She is also a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, mindbodygreen, Yoganonymous, AstroStyle, and several music magazines. Her teaching style is a blend of her love for music and intuitive movement, with emphasis on core strength. You can find her regular classes at Shambhala Yoga in Brooklyn and connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.