People tend to separate cognitive and muscular well-being. In fact, there's a fairly pervasive stereotype -- used in ads for gyms and a variety of other companies in the fitness world -- of the muscle-bound hunk. Fortunately, this whole idea is demonstrably untrue. In fact, there's plenty of research suggesting just the opposite. Regular exercise can actually improve brain function, even affecting the physical structure of your brain in beneficial ways.
This is of particular interest when it comes to conditions like Alzheimer's disease and other forms of cognitive impairment. And, understandably, most of the research on this topic has centered around the potential for exercise to improve brain function in these cases. So, what have the researchers found?
Building the Body and Brain
One of the most promising studies so far was published in the March 2017 edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Over the course of the six-month study, a group of 100 patients, all over 55 and dealing with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), were asked to complete a routine of resistance training two or three days out of each week. These workouts were accompanied by cognitive training.
Throughout the study, the team of researchers monitored aerobic capacity (or cardiovascular endurance), strength, and cognitive function. Once the six months were complete and the numbers were crunched, the team found that the participants who saw the greatest gains in strength also had the most dramatic improvements in memory and overall brain function. The same was not true, however, when it came to aerobic capacity.
Choosing the Right Exercise
Clearly, strength training is a powerful way to improve brain function. But were there any particular exercises or forms of strength training that showed more promise? In the study, the researchers noted two specific aspects of the strength training program that are important to remember.
First, the workouts were high-intensity. While this is a fairly general term that can mean all sorts of different things to different people depending on fitness level and overall health, "high-intensity" is typically defined as any workout that brings the heart rate up to about 70 to 75 percent of its maximum. That's still kind of a clunky measurement. Fortunately, there's an easier way to measure intensity that's been found to correlate pretty closely with heart rate. Known as the Talk Test, this method involves simply seeing whether or not the exerciser can talk. During high-intensity exercise, they should only be able to say a few words before having to catch their breath.
Lower-body strength was the second aspect that had a powerful impact of the memory and cognitive function of the participants. Considering the fact that the biggest, strongest muscles on the human body reside in the legs, this isn't really a surprise. Exercises that target these muscle groups activate a huge number of muscle fibers all at once, leading to more dramatic increases in strength.
It's important to note that the study's authors specified that "whole-body strength" was the greatest predictor of cognitive improvement. This means that no muscle group should go ignored. In order to quickly and efficiently develop this kind of strength, compound movements that work multiple muscle grounds all at once are the most effective tool. By adding these kinds of exercises to your everyday life, you'll increase your chances of improved brain function.