Building Muscle is Good for Your Brain Health

Building Muscle is Good for Your Brain Health

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Many of our followers at Everything Retirement will know that we have covered the issue of cognitive decline with some frequency. We’ve not only looked at foods that promote cognitive health but also the kinds of exercises that promote cognitive health, too.

Among the latter, we’ve stressed – based on the available research – that the best exercise for cognitive health is to be found in activities such as tennis, racquetball, and dancing. All are dependent upon, and are driven by, the concept of rapid reflex.

And that’s the key (or one of them) to the maintenance of cognitive health. In general, we tended to reject activities such as low impact workouts or spinning – though valuable for muscle tone, flexibility and cardio-vascular fitness – as being virtually worthless when it comes to slowing down cognitive decline. Lifting weights and riding a stationary bike were fun, but too passive, predictable and repetitive to make a cognitive difference, we thought. But as it turns out, research is proving that to be incorrect

New Developments

A recent article in The Globe and Mail challenged that conclusion and we’re happy to report its findings: “A recent study from researchers at McGill University, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, offers a new reason for continuing to work on building muscle: It’s good for your brain, not just your biceps. Greater muscle mass, the results suggest, helps ward off cognitive decline in older adults beyond what you’d expect based on their exercise levels alone.”

Though initially astonished, we have to agree that the numbers don’t lie.

As The Globe and Mail article pointed out: “Using statistical techniques, the researchers were able to compare subjects with equivalent muscle strength, as assessed with a handgrip test, and equivalent exercise habits. Sure enough, those with lower muscle mass still had a faster subsequent decline in executive function, suggesting that muscle tissue itself has some sort of neuroprotective function.”

Though fascinating, this conclusion is hardly definitive. Precisely how muscle helps the brain remains a source of perplexity.

On the most obvious level, those with more muscle tend to be active, rather than sedentary. Heightened activity levels pump oxygen-rich blood to the brain, for example. And greater muscle mass may also help keep blood glucose levels in check, protecting the brain from damage.

Is strength training a path to improved cognitive health? The jury is out on that one, though a 2014 study also reported in The Globe and Mail is worth noting:

  • The research followed 150,000 walkers
  • The research period was 17-years
  • The subjects engaged in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week
  • These numbers were associated with a 25-per-cent reduction in the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease
  • Those who got twice that much exercise had a 40-per-cent risk reduction

So, if you want to cover all your bases, the choice between rapid reflex-based exercise, cardio and weights is easy: Do them all. And don’t leave out a good diet laced with sufficient protein, ideally spread throughout the day. One big protein blast is not as effective as smaller amounts consumed a little at a time throughout the day.

What To Aim For

  • About 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight with each meal
  • At 150 pounds, that works out to 27 grams of protein per day
  • This is the equivalent of a tuna sandwich, a glass of milk and a handful of almonds

Think About It

The main point to remember is that the goal here isn’t to wow everyone at the beach next year – whatever your age. The ultimate goal, as The Globe and Mail reports, is this: “a more realistic target for older adults is to keep the muscle you’ve got and prevent further losses.”

And don’t forget the one ironclad law of exercise: “Use it or lose it.”

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About the author

Creativity and energy define recent retiree Allyson Dawson. Along with a multitude of interests and hobbies that includes illustration, painting, graphic design, food and wine, tennis and world travel, she’s the principal blog contributor at Everything Retirement. Her more than 400 posts (to date) combine careful research with humour, imagination and insights that define today’s retirement lifestyle.