Strong muscles may boost the brain

We’ve heard about the benefits of muscle toning in the prevention of osteoporosis. But are there benefits to the brain as well? A study published in the Archives of Neurology in November 2009 suggests that there may be a link between muscle strength and the rate of cognitive decline.

The study, from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, followed 900 dementia-free older persons living in the community over four years and found a possible link between increased muscle strength and decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Paul Verhoeff, Baycrest psychiatrist and research scientist, cautions that while “there is certainly strong and clear evidence linking aerobic exercises to the prevention of dementia. In terms of muscle strength, at this point the evidence is not quite as strong.”

He explains that there may be other factors to explain the decreased muscle strength in those who developed Alzheimer’s in this study. “Apathy and depression often precede dementia in many people with Alzheimer’s. When people get depressed they don’t go out, move around or exercise. This can cause reduced muscle mass.”

Dr. Verhoeff recommends including both aerobic and muscle toning exercise in your workout. “Increasing blood circulation to the brain through aerobic exercise has been proven to help prevent dementia,” he says.

Strong muscles and bones are particularly important as we age for preventing osteoporosis and falls. If research proves that there’s a benefit to the brain as well, then that’s a bonus.


Baycrest fitness and health promotion specialist, Judy Chu, agrees. She recommends adding some simple muscle-toning exercises into your aerobic routine. But she emphasizes that you should consult a fitness professional to avoid injuries from improper exercise.

Walk — “This is the most underestimated activity,” says Chu. “Long distance walking in particular improves aerobic fitness and muscle strength. In the winter, try a safe alternative like walking on the treadmill or mall walking.”

Swim — This is a safe and comfortable option to help with muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility, and aerobic fitness.

Join a fitness club or hire a trainer — Check your local community centre, YMCA or health club for classes. A personal trainer can assist you with home exercises. For example, resistance exercises can be simple and inexpensive using free weights and exercise bands.

Photo © Alexander Raths

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