- Aging -

PUMPING IRONY: Lift and Learn

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Lift and Learn

I may have to adjust my opinion of bodybuilders after new research suggests resistance training strengthens the aging brain.

During my childhood in the Fifties, there was a general consensus among my peers that the guys in the Charles Atlas ads were bulked-up blockheads. Sure, the “97-pound weakling” whipped himself into shape after some bully kicked sand in his face and eventually reclaimed his girlfriend, but we figured it wouldn’t take the young woman very long to realize that her muscle-bound suitor didn’t have much going for him between his ears.

That particular prejudice proved to be more durable than most of my childhood biases and helped convince me to avoid barbells, dumbbells, and other bicep-building implements until well into middle age. It just felt dorky — and kind of vain — to make any obvious effort to get stronger. I didn’t need six-pack abs to feel good about myself — as long as I kept my shirt on at the beach.

That view prevailed until about 10 years ago, when peer pressure — and a free gym membership — persuaded me to start a regular workout regimen that included some sheepish attempts at weightlifting. It still felt slightly awkward, but as the months wore on I seemed to be gaining some muscle mass without losing any brain cells. I was still eminently capable of lunkheaded behavior, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the size of my triceps.

And now, as I hover closer to 80 than 50, it appears that all that (reasonably) heavy lifting might actually benefit my brain as much as my brawn.

Researchers at the University of Eastern Finland recently released the results of a study suggesting that strength training can boost cognitive function in folks my age. And as if to vindicate my aversion to the dreadmill — and running in general — they concluded that cardio work had little effect on the aging brain.

It turns out that hoisting weights — in this case, progressive resistance training (PRT) — boosts the body’s production of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), the lack of which has been linked to cognitive dysfunction and incident dementia. The study also pointed to increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and reduced cortisol levels as possible contributors to cognitive improvement.

“Collectively, these results suggest not only that PRT is effective in improving cognitive function, but also that PRT interventions should be optimized to maximize strength gains in order to maximize improvements in cognitive function,” the study authors concluded.

I don’t think I need a PRT intervention at this point, but it’s probably time for me to cut Charles Atlas — and bodybuilders everywhere — a little slack. Hoisting all that poundage may be setting them up for a long, dementia-free life. And nobody’s going to bother them at the beach.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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