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Strength Training for Your Brain

Using weights as we age can improve thinking and balance.

Lifting weights and other forms of resistance training can help shape up your brain as well as your muscles.

Canadian researchers found that strength and balance training improved thinking ability among a group of 28 older men and women with a history of falling who took part in a falls prevention program.

After six months, the participants, age 70 and older, showed a 13 percent improvement in high-level thinking skills. The skills of a control group of 24 people who also had a history of falling but received standard care deteriorated 10 percent.

According to researcher Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia, the 28 whose brain function improved received regular visits from a physiotherapist who encouraged them to go through specific strength and balance exercises three times weekly and to walk at least twice weekly. Individuals in the control group were expected to initiate the exercise program on their own; none of them did.

The exercise program also helped reduce falls: After one year, 43 percent of the exercise group had repeat falls, compared with 67 percent of the standard care group.

Most research to date has focused on the benefits of aerobic exercise on the brain, but mounting evidence shows that resistance training also may help.

“The link between cognitive function and exercise is just beginning to emerge,” says Anne Shumway-Cook of the University of Washington’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine in Seattle. “In addition to its many other positive benefits, we now see that exercise can also help maintain thinking skills as we age.”

The Canadian study, one of three recent trials on strength training and brain health, was published in the OctoberJournal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Nissa Simon is a freelance writer who lives in New Haven, Conn.