Enhanced muscle strength improves brain performance

Think weightlifting is just for gym junkies and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Think again. New research has shown that regular weight training can lead to increased brain function and can help stave off Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Research conducted by the University of Sydney has shown that increased muscle strength leads to improved brain function in adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which defines people who have noticeably reduced cognitive abilities, such as reduced memory but are still able to live independently, and is a precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease.

Findings from the Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART) trial show, for the first time, a positive causal link between muscle adaptations to progressive resistance training and the functioning of the brain among those aged over 55 with MCI.

The trial was conducted in collaboration with the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at the University of New South Wales and the University of Adelaide.

“What we found in this follow up study is that the improvement in cognition function was related to their muscle strength gains” Dr Yorgi Mavros from the Faculty of Health Sciences, at University of Sydney says.

He said the research team had set out to determine if progressive resistance training could improve cognitive function in study participants.

He explained that participants were randomly allocated to groups that received high intensity strength training, or gentle exercise classes like calisthenics and stretching. All participants undertook two sessions per week for 30-45 minutes, and the trial lasted six months.

Before, at six months and at 12 months, all participants had their cognition and muscle strength assessed and underwent MRI scans as well to determine any long-term changes based from the intervention.

“We saw that only individuals who received the high intensity strength training showed improvements in their cognitive function, and their MRI scans showed that part of their brain increased in thickness (the area is called the posterior cingulate cortex and is known to be affected in Alzheimer’s disease),” Dr Mavros says.

He further explained that their analyses showed that most of the effect of the high intensity was connected to the strength gains.

“The people who had the largest strength gains also had the largest benefit in their cognition,” Dr Mavros says.

“We also saw that people who lifted the most amount of weight during the six-month period also had the greatest improvement in their cognition. So, the results overall suggest that maximising your strength gains with this type of exercise will help protect you from cognitive decline and potentially dementia in the future.”

Participants doing resistance exercise prescribed weight lifting sessions twice week for six months, working to at least 80 per cent of their peak strength. As they became stronger, the amount of weight they lifted on each machine was increased to maintain the intensity at 80 per cent of their peak strength.

Dr Mavros says: “The more we can get people doing resistance training like weight lifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier ageing population.”

“The key however is to make sure you are doing it frequently, at least twice a week, and at a high intensity so that you are maximising your strength gains. This will give you the maximum benefit for your brain.”

And Dr Mavros says it’s never too late to start weight training.

“There is always some benefit to gain,” he says. “What I will say, is that the earlier you start, the better. The oldest person in this study was 86 years old, and the senior investigator on the study, Professor Fiatarone Singh, began her career with nursing home residents in their 90’s.

“If it’s not too late for them, its not too late for anyone.”

Oxley Home Care, established in 2006, is a family-owned Sydney business and an Approved Government Provider for aged care services, specialising in Dementia Care.

Oxley Home Care provides Dementia Care, Private Care, Home Care, Nursing and Allied Health to enable people to live a quality life independently in their own home and stay connected to their local community.

For further information, please feel free to call Oxley Home Care on 1300 993 591.

Gilian Douglass


  1. I have been doing weights and resistance training weekly for over 2 years. My goals have been to maintain bone density and muscle strength as I get older. To find that my brain may be benefited is a bonus. Definitely think this study is on the right course!

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