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How You Can Strength Train to Help Your Brain

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Just like cardio goes beyond burning calories to strengthening the heart and cardiovascular system, strength training also goes beyond just getting those muscles strong. Some new research published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society found that strength training can help to increase your brain power, even as you age.

Here’s what happens. As people age we develop lesions on the white matter of the brain, which makes it more challenging (or impossible) for the brain to connect certain pathways together. One theory is that exercising throughout life can help to prevent those lesions from growing and becoming issues, but past research hasn’t been real optimistic.

For this recent study, the researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver wanted to focus specifically on strength training, not just exercise in general. This time the research was conclusive…strength training helps.

The study was done on a group of women between the ages of 65 and 75 who already had some lesions on their brain. They then introduced them to one of three different strength training plans, which they continued with for an entire year. They only met to do the strength training one or two times a week, but they were consistently pushed to increase reps and match their strength as they went along.

The study author Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, P.T., Ph.D, explained.

“We had the participants do the same exercises twice per week but we did continually progress them so the the target load was 2 sets of 8 reps. We also challenged them progressively in terms of the motor control/movement—such as squats, to lunges, to lunge walk.”

At the end of that year, the women who strength trained twice a week had “significantly lower” white matter regions on the brain than those who did not.

Even though the study was done just on women, Liu-Ambrose is confident that the results would hold true for men as well.

“From the data we generated, as well as understanding the benefit of resistance training on cardiometabolic and cardiovascular health, one could reasonably hypothesize that long-term resistance training could prevent [white-matter] lesion development and progression.”

Other research that was done in 2014 found that strength training for as little as 20 minutes can increase your longterm memory by around 10 percent. This study was done on both men and women, and asked them to try and remember a series of 90 photographs that they were shown. Next they split up the group and had half do some leg reps while the others kicked back. Then they has both groups return two days later and look at an even larger sample of photographs, including the 90 that they already been shown.

The results showed that the recall of what photos they had already seen was better with the group who did the leg reps than the group who did not. The group who exercised recalled about 60 percent of the 90 photos, compared to the other group who recalled about 50 percent.

Clearly the link is there, and who doesn’t want a better working brain? Add that to your list of motivations for getting to the gym.

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About Kate Ferguson Kate Fergus is a Los Angeles local and freelance writer for a variety of blogs and online magazines. When she's not writing, the UC Davis graduate is focused on pursuits of the entertainment industry, spin class, and hot sauce.

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