Lots of evidence points to the usefulness of aerobic exercise for maintaining and improving mental functioning (see a previous blog post here and an extensive review article here). It is not as clear, though, whether strength training has an effect. An article in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that even a modest amount of resistance training (60 minutes two times a week for 6 months) can improve cognitive function in older women with evidence of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is defined as a condition in which persons have clear evidence of below average cognitive function in an area such as memory and in addition report that they have memory difficulties. It’s considered an important condition in part because people with MCI are believed to be an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
While other studies have shown that resistance training can help cognitive functioning, this study compared strength training with aerobic exercise (walking) and a less intense “balance and tone” intervention. The authors also studied the impact of their interventions on the brain using functional MRI (fMRI). Results showed that strength training was associated with improvements in cognitive function on several study measures, including an executive function measure (the Stroop task) and a memory task. In a subgroup of people who completed fMRI, the strength training was associated with changes in brain function during mental activity. The authors conclude that strength training can help to improve cognitive function in women with MCI, and may be a useful strategy in helping maintain cognitive function in persons at risk for decline.
Nagamatsu, LS et al. (2012). Resistance training promotes cognitive and functional brain plasticity in seniors with probable mild cognitive impairment. JAMA Internal Medicine, 172, 666-668. Full article available without charge here.