Scientific Breakthrough: Could Lifting Weights Actually Make You Smarter?

Very high resolution 3d rendering of an human brain.

If you follow me on social media you’d have noticed a little more excitement in my demeanor this week. That’s because a recent study has indicated that weightlifting can have quite incredible benefits on degenerative brain issues.

Having invested half my life lifting weights at various gyms, and now owning my own facility in North Sydney (Unity Gym), naturally I absolutely love finding new science that supports what I do for a living.

Although this is not the first study to indicate that exercise supports healthy brain function, and particular, resistance exercise (strength training), this study is worth getting excited about.

So what’s so exciting about this particular study conducted at The University Of Sydney?

That’s a great question.

I will answer it in a moment … plus, I will reveal exactly what the research has found.

Before we jump into the outcome, first we must understand the basis of the research.

I.e. what they did, and how they did it.

Scientists at the University of Sydney in collaboration with the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing at UNSW and the University of Adelaide set out to study the effects of cognitive function after resistance training.

Although this is not the first study to indicate that exercise supports healthy brain function, and particular, resistance exercise (strength training), this study is worth getting excited about.

So what’s so exciting about this particular study conducted at The University Of Sydney?

That’s a great question.

I will answer it in a moment … plus, I will reveal exactly what the research has found.

Before we jump into the outcome, first we must understand the basis of the research.

I.e. what they did, and how they did it.

Scientists at the University of Sydney in collaboration with the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing at UNSW and the University of Adelaide set out to study the effects of cognitive function after resistance training.

Portrait of Senior Couple Exercising On White Background

The broad study involved trialing 100 adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) who were aged between 55 and 86 years.

For those of you  not privy to the scientific lingo, Mild Cognitive Impairment defines people who have noticeably reduced cognitive abilities, such as reduced memory; but to qualify, they must still be able to live independently.

Important to note, MCI is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Meaning, individuals who present with MCI – without treatment – will usually end up with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ok, with that said, what did the study find?

This is super cool!

The results of the trial, published in the Journal of American Geriatrics, showed overall cognition improved significantly after resistance training. The alternative cognitive training and placebo activities prescribed to others in the trial did not have this benefit.

Using MRI scans, the trial led by the University of Sydney found increased muscle strength led to improved brain function in adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).

In fact, the area of the brain that is affected by degenerative brain diseases was actually enlarged by weight lifting.

Ok, ok, improved brain function after exercise is not exactly new science right? We’ve known that exercise, weightlifting in particular, improve brain function for quite some time.

What’s so exciting about this study is that leading author Dr Yorgi Mavros found that there was a direct correlation between how strong they got and how much their brain improved.

Meaning the bigger the strength development, the bigger the brain development.

So what exactly did the successful group do to achieve such incredible results? The actual trial variables are extremely important so pay attention here.

Dr Yorgi’s finding indicates that just a little bit of exercise every so often will not yield the same results. First, the participants performed weight-lifting sessions twice a week consistently for six months.

The key word here is consistency!

In addition, participants in the study worked hard. Extremely hard! The trial had these adults lifting weights at a minimum of 80 per cent of their peak strength. For anyone who has never lifted weights in the gym, that’s pretty heavy!

Plus, this is key, over the sixth month period they followed what’s called a progressive overload method; meaning, as they got stronger, the amount of weight they lifted was increased.

This means they were continually tested, exercising at a high intensity. In layman’s terms, they were taken well outside of their comfort zone! Not something i’d recommend without professional supervision by a good personal trainer.

So what can we conclude from this exciting research?

Although more research needs to be done to prove that weightlifting actually makes you smarter it definitely helps.

We can conclude that resistance training is definitely beneficial for your brain. Particularly in elderly people who already display signs of degenerative brain disorders. (but I don’t suggest waiting till that happens).

To get the full benefits of this study you must lift heavy weights. 80% or above of your maximum ability is key; and you must be consistent, lifting a minimum of two times per week, progressively increasing the difficulty as you get stronger.

Any good personal training program will support this.

A final note.

There will be many of you reading this who haven’t exercised for a while.

Remembering what you used to be capable of doing in your 20’s and 30’s is definitely not the best way to set your current benchmark. Your body will have changed since then, meaning, your level of strength, coordination and your posture will have adapted to your new lifestyle.

I recommend that you seek medical advice if you have not exercised much in the past, or participated in high intensity physical activity for a few years.

Here is a link to the actual publication if you’re interested in reading more.

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Plus a recent story that aired on Channel 7 regarding the study.

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