Resistance exercise improves cognition in people with early memory problems

Posted on 25th October 2016

A trial into the benefits of muscle strengthening exercise and cognitive training has revealed that a programme of resistance exercise can improve cognition in people with early memory and thinking problems called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The benefits were seen up to one year after the supervised sessions had come to an end. The data is published on 24 October in the Journal of American Geriatrics.

The trial called Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART) was led by researchers at the University of Sydney and involved 100 people aged between 55 and 86 who had MCI. MCI is a term used to describe memory and thinking problems severe enough to start to interfere with day-to-day life but not yet severe enough to be classified as dementia.

The randomised, double-blind trial saw participants split into groups that either completed resistance exercise and computerised cognitive training, resistance exercise plus a placebo cognitive task (watching nature videos), cognitive training and a placebo exercise programme of seated stretching or both placebo exercise and cognitive training.

The resistance exercise programme involved weight-lifting sessions twice a week for six months, with the weight they lifted increasing as they gained muscle strength to ensure they always worked at around 80% of their peak strength.

In 2014, the main outcomes of the trial were reported showing an improvement in memory and thinking immediately after resistance training, which were still apparent a year after the trial was completed. These benefits were not apparent in those doing the cognitive training or placebo tasks. However, today’s follow-up findings also show an increase in size in certain brain areas in those who took part in the resistance training programme.

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“We know that exercise is linked to a lower risk of dementia and could hold benefits for those already experiencing memory decline, but it’s not clear what form of exercise may be most advantageous. This trial did not look into the potential benefits of aerobic activity, but muscle strengthening exercises twice a week are already recommended in the physical activity guidelines for adults.

“Keeping physically active does not need to mean lifting dumbbells or running the streets, but can also include carrying shopping or taking stairs instead of the lift. Resistance exercises also present a good way for those who are less mobile to keep active. It’s important for people of any age to consider the widespread benefits of physical activity, not just on the body but on brain health too.”

Posted in Science news