Updated: Mar 3, 2019
If you knew that doing something on a regular basis could build your bones, help your heart, improve your balance, make you feel like you have more energy, make you look and feel better, help you lose weight and prevent you from being institutionalized due to disease in later life would you do it? And what if the research also suggested that your overall health would be better, your chances of disease lower, and your overall quality of life better? Would that motivate you more? Well, studies show that strength training can do all of that and more.
Strength training is not just about bodybuilders, sculpting muscle or flexing your biceps. It can benefit people of all ages and may be particularly important for people with health issues such as arthritis or a heart condition. There are many other reasons to exercise too. Protecting your brain health and optimizing your thinking ability is one of them. In fact, there's compelling evidence that exercise produces large cognitive gains, improves memory, and helps fight dementia too.
Obviously maintaining our strength as we age is important. We naturally lose muscle as we age (called sarcopenia), but what most people fail to realize is that the majority of that loss actually comes from the fast twitch muscle fiber. Put another way, a submaximal fitness program such as walking, running, swimming or other cardiovascular based activities will not stimulate the fast twitch fibers. Strength training is the only way to preserve that fiber. It is the fast twitch fiber that provides agility, power and also preserves our ability to perform daily tasks as we age.
Most people just look at exercise, such as walking, as a great way to improve circulation or lose weight. They are not wrong. Research on cardiovascular activities shows a very positive correlation to weight loss. But strength training has also shown significant benefit to people for weight loss. And the benefits don’t end there either. Strength training also improves both extremity and heart circulation, lowers cholesterol, improves blood pressure, wards off cancer, makes you feel better and helps you live longer. These are great benefits, but there are more. It may not be as obvious to you that exercise also improves blood flow to the brain, and improves the production of nerve-protecting compounds. Exercise also reduces damaging plaque accumulation in the brain, and improves memory too. The two things that people are most concerned about as they age; being able to remain active enough to perform their daily tasks, and not suffering from a brain based memory destroying disease that robs them of their most precious memories; are preserved by strength training.
No longer is it a cardiovascular world where its only old school aerobics that helps you reduce weight and improve heart health, now strength training has been shown to have a very beneficial impact on your health with all the same benefits that you would get from your morning run. That includes cholesterol reduction, blood pressure changes, reducing blood sugar, disease prevention and longevity. And of course, now we can add brain function and memory to that list of benefits. One study found that just 20 minutes of strength training was enough to enhance long-term memory by about 10 percent.
Another study which supports these findings suggests that working your leg muscles helps maintain cognitive function as you get older. According to the authors, simply walking more could help maintain brain function well into old age, but strength training is the real key to maintaining your youth. According to the research the only thing keeping you able to function as you did when you were younger is your strength and cardiovascular activities cannot prevent strength loss (sarcopenia) as you age.
What is important to understand here is not that doing lots of squats and burpees are the key to longevity, but that overall someone who is strong will have less age related brain changes and less disease than someone who has never exercised or strength trained.
Past research has demonstrated that exercise promotes brain health by releasing hormones from the muscles, which encourage the growth of new brain cells — a process known as neurogenesis or neuroplasticity, further suggesting that those in early Parkinson’s may also benefit from strength training. Research in whole body vibration also suggests significant but safe benefits for those with Parkinson’s and other brain related issues.
Research clearly points out that it is possible to grow new cells in your brains memory center (hippocampus) throughout your entire lifetime, providing that that your lifestyle (fitness level) supports it. Not convinced? A one year-long study found that adults who exercised regularly were actually able to enlarge their brains memory center by 1-2 percent per year when they exercised. Without exercise we would expect those brain centers to shrink with age.
The hippocampus or brain memory center belongs to a part of your brain known as the limbic system. It plays an important role in the consolidation of information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory, as well as spatial navigation. Previous animal research has found that not only does exercise activate hippocampal neurons, it actually promotes their growth. In one study, exercising mice grew an average of 6,000 new brain cells in every cubic millimeter of tissue sampled. That’s hard to dismiss as anything else but exercise induced. So what about human studies right? I mean animals are great but what is the transfer rate? A study of elementary children who did 40 minutes of daily activity were found to improve their IQ by 4 points in a study. In the same study they found that students who exercised before class improved their test scores 17% over those who did not exercise, and those who exercised for at least 40 minutes three times a week improved an entire letter grade.
Many studies find the same basic results. Employees who exercise are more productive and make less mistakes. Adults who exercise have better cognition and less of a chance of disease, the list is long, the studies many, and the results speak for themselves. It makes you wonder why the school boards in all their supposed brilliance decided to eliminate physical exercise in high school and why they make it so hard for athletes in organized sports to participate. Clearly they themselves did not get enough exercise!
Did you also realize that strength training causes certain proteins in the muscle called myokines to be released? That might not mean anything to you until you understand that these myokines actually trump the inflammatory cytokines and overall produce less inflammation, especially in those with arthritis. This can also be helpful in treating metabolic disease too.
So what we know and understand about exercise is that strength training can have similar results metabolically as cardiovascular exercise, and now we know that it’s not just your biceps that benefit from fitness, your brain is also one of the major benefactors of exercise too.
Certainly a walking program is a good place to start. Buts let’s face reality. Walking cannot help you to stop the loss of muscle as you age. Only strength can do that. When it comes to strength training one of the safest and most effective training programs is whole body vibration training (such as Power Plate), followed closely by cable resistance machines such as FreeMotion, free weights, and other functional exercise programs. Least effective is fixed range exercise equipment which is found in most traditional health clubs.
If you choose a walking program you should strive for 7,000-10,000 steps per Even daily walking has been found to have many benefits including slowing of the aging process.
So, strength training your muscles is important. It’s important for your energy, for your metabolism, for your ability to live a longer more productive life and for its brain-boosting effects. Strength training produces a number of molecular, enzymatic, hormonal, and chemical changes that help slow down and even reverse a number of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease. And, contrary to popular belief, strength training is particularly important as you age.
By strengthening muscle, connective tissues, tendons, and ligaments, strength training helps you maintain a youthful posture. It allows you to perform everyday activities like climbing stairs and getting out of a chair with greater ease. This freedom of movement adds to the quality of your life. It may also make you look and feel younger! One study showed that strength training in the elderly genetically turned back the biological clock 10 years.
So, now you know how to build stronger bones, help your heart, improve your balance, make yourself feel like you have more energy, look and feel better, help you lose weight and prevent yourself from being institutionalized due to disease in later life. As Socrates said, what a shame it would be for us to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which our body is capable. Have you maximized your potential yet? Let’s start today….