Be strong, think strong. That’s the takeaway from recent studies on the connection between moderate exercise at any age and improved mental acuity.
Better muscle strength encourages better cognitive abilities for people 50 and older, a study from the University of Eastern Finland found. The findings confirm earlier studies that have found a correlation between hand grip strength and better brain function, but this study was expanded to include muscle strengthening throughout the entire body.
This psychomotor connection to the speed of the brain’s processing of information is seen as part of an overall healthy body function. “If I have higher muscle strength, I have higher cognitive function,” said Dr. Todd Manini, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s Institute on Aging.
Developing higher muscle strength “is progressive,” he said. “You have to challenge yourself a little bit [and] make your muscles adapt.”
When we do strengthening exercises such as pushups, lift weights or do leg squats with weights, the body produces a neurotrophin “that promotes brain health,” said Dr. Ross Andel, a professor at the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida.
While such exercises as walking, jogging and swimming are good, strength training brings greater potential benefits, he said.
Age-related muscle loss typically begins at 30, Andel said, and the loss continues at about 1 percent a year. Therefore, by 80, if a person hasn’t done much in the way of strength training, the muscle loss could be 50 percent.
But even such dramatic muscle loss is reversible. “It doesn’t matter at what age people start,” he said. “Returns may diminish somewhat, but … the payoff is great at any age.”
Andel recommends a person start “very moderately,” using smaller weights and building up. If you can’t do 15 repetitions with a certain weight, then step down to a lower weight, he suggested.
“Go easy and listen to your body,” he said. “We all develop a little bit of soreness” when we exercise, he added. “Strength training is breaking down muscle cells and then rebuilding. It’s a process.”
Manini agrees with the slow-and-safe approach to muscle-strengthening exercises, especially for older people.
“Like anything else you do for the first time … it’s important they do these in a safe environment. Hold on to something for balance,” he suggested. A side rail. A couch. Just in case.
A chat with your doctor before beginning an exercise program is always a good idea, Manini added. “Exercise is generally safe,” he said. “People can be as active as they physically can.”
Obviously, diseases such as arthritis can hinder an exercise program. “The idea is to be as active as their health will allow,” he said.