These days, most of us know the benefits of exercise for both our body and our brain. Exercise naturally boosts blood flow and oxygen to the body and brain, enhancing cognition and brain functions.  Regular exercise, particularly aerobic, can increase the size of the hippocampus, a critical area for learning and memory. There is even evidence physical activity helps to maintain brain health and combat conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.1

Getting regular exercise also reduces stress and anxiety which have a negative impact on our brains. By lowering cortisol levels, a stress hormone that impacts how memories are stored and recalled, exercise improves memory function. 

Strength training, alongside aerobic exercise, is becoming increasingly recognized for its brain benefits. It has been linked to cognitive function and brain health. Incorporating a strength training routine offers several advantages for brain health and protection against aging.

Here are four of the main ways adopting a strength training routine can benefit your brain.

Combats cognitive aging

Strength training is well-regarded for its neuroprotective benefits, particularly in guarding the brain against age-related decline. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is a significant risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, can be effectively countered by strength training. 

Studies show that a six-month weight lifting regimen, conducted weekly for 90 minutes, can protect the hippocampus from shrinkage (known as atrophy), with these protective effects lasting up to a year post-training.  Notably, strength training outperformed other exercises like stretching, toning, and cognitive training in reducing brain atrophy. Importantly, these brain health benefits are connected specifically to strength training, as changes in general fitness or physical activity levels did not influence the results. 2

Boost Cognitive function 

Strength training not only enhances muscle power but also boosts cognitive functions, like processing speed and executive skills, including planning, decision making, and attention.  It initiates specific neurobiological, physical and chemical processes in the brain that help protect cognitive and brain function during aging.

This effect is particularly noticeable in the frontal lobe, a key area for cognitive processes located behind the forehead. Additionally, strength training benefits the brain’s white matter, which is vital for cognitive functioning and signal communication between the brain and spinal cord. Resistance type training and exercise protects white matter from shrinking and reduces the size of damaged areas, known as lesions. This helps maintain essential cognitive functions and communication within the brain and between the brain and body.3

Improves your mood

The benefits of exercise on mental health are well-known, and recent evidence suggests strength training can positively affect mood and emotional states. An in depth review of 33 studies, explored the impact of strength training on depressive symptoms. Participants engaged in resistance programs averaging 16 weeks, typically three times a week. Results showed a notable reduction in depressive symptoms, regardless of program duration, frequency, or participant demographics like age, sex, and health status.  Notably, the greatest improvements were seen in individuals with mild to moderate depression, indicating that more severe cases may need additional support. 4

Additionally, resistance training has been found to alleviate anxiety symptoms. In a study involving anxious young adults, an 8-week resistance exercise training program led to a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms compared to the control group.5

Improves neural plasticity

Neural plasticity is the brain’s ability to create new connections. This happens when we learn and experience new things and is critical to maintaining brain health especially as we get older.

Research has established a link between strength training and neurological function. Specifically, a review of studies on strength training and neural plasticity showed positive changes in the brain’s motor areas. These changes include how muscles are activated and controlled by the nervous system, and alterations in the functioning of motor neurons.6

Additionally, resistance training has been particularly beneficial for older adults. For example, in older women with MCI, a 6-month resistance training program significantly enhanced regional brain plasticity, along with cognitive and memory function.  This was compared to aerobic, balance, and toning exercises, which didn’t have the same results,  highlighting the unique brain benefits of resistance training.7

The takeaway

It turns out that strength training goes far beyond building muscles and physical endurance. It’s a powerful tool for increasing neural plasticity, protecting the brain from aging, and boosting cognitive functions. It’s clear that incorporating strength training into our regular fitness routines is emerging not only as a strategy for physical wellness but also as a crucial investment in long-term cognitive health. So next time you’re considering skipping that weight session, remember it’s not just your muscles that will thank you, but your brain too. Embrace the weights and enjoy the brain-boosting benefits that come along with it!

  1. Suwabe, K., Byun, K., Hyodo, K., Reagh, Z. M., Roberts, J. M., Matsushita, A., Soya, H. (2018). Rapid stimulation of human dentate gyrus function with acute mild exercise. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(41), 10487-10492.
  2. Broadhouse, K. M., Singh, M. F., Suo, C., Gates, N., Wen, W., Brodaty, H., Jain, N., Wilson, G.C., Meiklejohn, J., Singn, N., Bernhard, B.T., Baker, M., Foroughi, N., Wang, Y., Kochan, N., Ashton, K., Brown, M., Li, Z., Mavros, Y., Sachdev,P.S., Valenzuela, M. J. (2020). Hippocampal plasticity underpins long-term cognitive gains from resistance exercise in MCI. NeuroImage: Clinical, 25, 102182.
  3. Herold, F., Törpel, A., Schega, L., Müller, N.G. 2019 Functional and/or structural brain changes in response to resistance exercises and resistance training lead to cognitive improvements – a systematic review. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act 16, 10.
  4. Gordon, B. R., McDowell, C. P., Hallgren, M., Meyer, J. D., Lyons, M., & Herring, M. P. (2018). Association of efficacy of resistance exercise training with depressive symptoms: meta-analysis and meta-regression analysis of randomized clinical trials. JAMA psychiatry, 75(6), 566-576.
  5. Gordon, B.R., McDowell, C.P., Lyons, M., Herring, M.P. 2020. Resistance exercise training for anxiety and worry symptoms among young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Sci Rep 10, 17548.
  6. Aagaard, P., Bojsen-Møller, J., & Lundbye-Jensen, J. (2020). Assessment of neuroplasticity with strength training. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 48(4), 151-162.
  7. Nagamatsu LS, Handy TC, Hsu CL, Voss M, Liu-Ambrose T. Resistance Training Promotes Cognitive and Functional Brain Plasticity in Seniors With Probable Mild Cognitive Impairment. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(8):666–668.