How Weight Training Changes the Brain

Most of us discover in middle age, to our chagrin, that brains change with age and thinking skills dip. Familiar names, words and the current location of our house keys begin to elude us.

But a wealth of helpful past research indicates that regular aerobic exercise, such as walking or jogging, can prop up memory and cognition. In the studies, which have involved people and animals, aerobic exercise generally increases the number of new neurons created in the brain’s memory center and also reduces inflammation. Unchecked, inflammation in the brain may contribute to the development of dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions.

Far less has been known, though, about whether and how resistance training affects the brain. A few studies with older people have linked weight training to improved cognition, but the studies have been small and the linkages tenuous. While researchers know that lifting weights builds muscle, it is not yet clear how, at a molecular level, it would affect the cells and functions of the brain.

Doctor’s solution, a modification of methods used in some earlier studies, involved a 100-centimeter-long ladder (a little over three feet) and bags of weighted pellets gently taped to the rats’ rear ends. The animals received a Froot Loop when they reached the top of the ladder and soon started climbing willingly, even without rewards. After several weeks, the climbers showed increased muscle mass, indicating that the activity was effective weight training.

Next, to test the training’s brain effects, Doctors injected a separate group of animals with a substance known to induce inflammation in the brain, creating a rodent form of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia.

Half of these rats then began a weekly program of weight training. As the climbing became easier, the mass of the pellets in their bags was increased, just as people progressively add to the weight they lift at gyms.

After five weeks, all of the animals, including an untouched control group, were loosed individually into a brightly lit maze with a single, darkened chamber. Rodents gravitate toward dark places and during repeated visits to the maze, the animals would be expected to learn the location and aim for that chamber.

But their success differed. In the first few tests, the control animals were fastest and most accurate, and the rodents with mild cognitive impairments faltered. With a little practice, though, the weight-trained animals, despite their induced cognitive impairments, caught up to and in some cases surpassed the speed and accuracy of the controls.

The untrained animals with mild cognitive impairments, meanwhile, continued to lag far behind the others in their ability to find and recall the chamber.

Finally, to better understand how ladder climbing might have changed the rats’ brains and minds, Doctors examined brain tissue from each of the groups. As expected, they found signs of inflammation in the brains of the animals that had been injected.

But they found, too, that the memory centers of the brains in the weight trainers teemed now with enzymes and genetic markers that are known to help kick-start the creation and survival of new neurons, while also increasing plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to remodel itself.

In effect, the brains of the weight-trained rats were remaking themselves to resemble those of brains that had not been inflamed and impaired.

Of course, this was a study with rats, and rats are not people. We rarely weight train by climbing ladders with heavy bags strapped to our rears, for one thing. So, it is impossible to know from this experiment if our brains will respond in quite the same way to lifting weights.

“We think it’s safe to say that people should look into doing some resistance training,” they say. “It’s good for you for all kinds of other reasons, and it appears to be neuroprotective. And who doesn’t want a healthy brain?”


Lara Khouli