Original article featured on Grace of no age

Building muscle greatly assists in building a healthier body. However, strength training isn’t only conducive to the physical aspects of health.

Exercise of all forms not only has a positive effect on the brain, in fact it is essential to good brain health. If you suffer from a mental health related condition, neurodegenerative disease, have chronic injuries, experience brain fog, or just find you have a flagging memory, more movement and greater strength may be exactly what you need.

Increased neuroplasticity

Movement is a way of feeding the brain stimulus.  Through exercise, we increase blood flow to the brain which provides nutrients to heal and grow new tissue. This creation of new neurons and pathways in the brain is known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is incredibly important because without it, learning and memory functions would not be possible. Strength training can increase neuroplasticity and also help us to create stronger neural pathways between the brain and body. Recent research by Newcastle University has shown that strength training begins making changes to the brain even before the muscles begin to grow. The study, using macaques, found that weightlifting strengthened the nervous system through the reticulospinal tract.  In fact, another study has shown that strength itself might come as much from exercising the nervous system as it does from the muscles it controls. These findings from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln could explain why those who lift heavier weights enjoy greater strength gains than low-load lifters, despite similar growth in muscle mass. So for a stronger nervous system, heavier appears to be the way to lift. Both of these studies have great significance not only for those wanting to get strong, but also for those recovering from physical injuries or brain injuries, such as strokes. Your brain and nervous system control your perception and management of pain. By increasing the connections within the brain and body, you may help overcome chronic pain and restore movement and function.

Protection against degeneration

The tissue building capabilities of strength training also provide some protection against degenerative brain disease. For far too long we have accredited this to part of the ageing process. In fact, it is imperative that we as women educate ourselves and take more responsibility for our health as we age. This will go a long way to help delay cognitive decline and reduce the severity of conditions like Dementia, M.S. and Alzheimers.  Neurological studies indicate that by late middle age many of us have begun to develop lesions in our brain’s white matter. White matter is responsible for relaying messages around our brain. A 52-week study for the American Geriatrics Society found that twice weekly strength training in ageing females could actually slow down white matter lesion progression.  Several regions of the brain, including the hippocampus and amygdala, also appear to decrease in size as we age. This directly impacts our cognition, resulting in a declined ability to process information efficiently. It also impacts our memory and ability to reason and retain attention. A long term Sydney University study found that strength training decreased shrinkage in subregions of the hippocampus, which are especially vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease. The effects of the training were evidenced for as long as 12 months after the training. Hand grip strength has also been found to be an indicator of cognitive strength in a Deakin University study. One of the best ways to improve grip strength is with progressive overload strength training. Indeed grip strength itself is a good indicator of overall life expectancy. 

Mental health

Exercise is a well known tool for managing common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Exercise increases the production of key neurotransmitters that regulate mood, sleep, cognition, memory, and learning. Often however, we only hear about the benefits of aerobic activity. Two recent meta-analyses showed resistance training significantly reduced depressive and anxiety related symptoms among adults. This took place regardless of physical or mental health status, gender, or total prescribed volume of training. One aspect not covered in the studies is the challenge and adversity that strength training provides to participants. Strength training impacts our neuroplasticity. As mentioned above, it helps our brains to cope with stressors and to adapt to change. Exercise itself is a form of stress to the body. So by giving our body and brain controlled doses of stress via strength training, we are teaching ourselves to adapt and manage stress. Overtime, strength training helps you to build mental fortitude as you progressively grow stronger. You begin lifting more and more weight and performing feats that once seemed impossible to you. Each milestone that you reach helps you to build your confidence, your resilience and your belief in your own capabilities.  If you want to combat feelings of anxiety and depression, and replace them with feelings of pride and accomplishment, it might just be time for you to start getting stronger.

Katie Masters.

Aging. Body Health. Menopause. Mental Wellbeing.