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Resistance Training Enhances Cognitive Functions

Written by: Ms Eleanor Alden, Research Analyst, ASPIRE55 Singapore 

Resistance training has been found to enhance the cognitive function of older adults—many studies report.

In 2019, the UN estimated that there are 703 million seniors (65 years and over) in the world-- a number which is predicted to double by 2050. Many of these people suffer from age-related cognitive decline, which can begin as early as age 45 and progress exponentially through one’s lifetime especially if remained unchecked (Singh-Manoux et al., 2012). This decline is characterized by diminished language skills, memory, and understanding, which negatively impacts the quality of life, autonomy, and daily activities of older people (Shatil, 2013).

With such a large population at risk of cognitive decline, it is important to implement affordable and effective treatments to prevent impairment. Thankfully, many studies have found that resistance training  is not only an effective way for older people to remain active and strong, it is also beneficial in order to protect against cognitive decline and enhance their cognitive functioning (Nagamatsu et al., 2012; Best et al., 2015, Cassilhas et al., 2007).

Resistance training is any exercise that causes the body to move against an outside or ‘resistant’ force like dumbbells, body weight, gravity, weighted bars, or any other object that causes the muscles to contract. Regular resistance training increases the strength, power, hypertrophy, and/or endurance of participants, and is a popular form of exercise for body builders, athletes, and casual gym-goers alike. Other than promoting muscle growth physiologically, resistance training is also beneficial to brain chemistry and function.

According to multiple studies, resistance training promotes the release of IGF-1, which is a hormone that facilitates tissue growth and plays a large role in protecting neural tissue from degeneration (Cassilhas et al., 2007). Production of IGF-1 is correlated to improved memory and attention in populations of older people, who benefit greatly from the protective effects of resistance training. Older people already suffering from the symptoms of cognitive decline have also been reported to benefit from the enhancing effects of resistance training (Yoon et al., 2018). 

Cognitive improvements from resistance training include: Resistance training has also been shown to improve: 

  • Long-term and short-term memory
  • Attention span
  • Multi-tasking
  • Focus-switching

In general, The World Health Organization recommends that older people dedicate at least 150 min/wk. to moderate intensity exercise, however, a few random controlled trials suggest that intensity and frequency are of lesser importance than consistent training over a long period of time (Best et al., 2015). For this reason, exercise programs should be continued for 12 weeks or more; the most profound and long-lasting effects of resistance training occur 6 months-1 year of activity (Freiberger et al., 2012). This may seem like a long time, but it is completely doable with a little dedication.

Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic provides a perfect opportunity to start resistance training-- it is more important than ever for older people to maintain physical and cognitive health while remaining at home. Strength/resistance training provides a perfect opportunity to do this! Now get up and get moving, there is no better time to start than today.



Best, J., Chiu, B., Liang Hsu, C., Nagamatsu, L., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2015). Long-Term Effects of Resistance Exercise Training on Cognition and Brain Volume in Older Women: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 21(10), 745-756. doi:10.1017/S1355617715000673

Cassilhas, Ricardo; Viana, Valter, Grassmann, Viviane Santos, Ronaldo Ruth,Tufik, Sérgio, Mello & Marco. The Impact of Resistance Exercise on the Cognitive Function of the Elderly, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: August 2007 - Volume 39 - Issue 8 - p 1401-1407

Freiberger, E., Häberle, L., Spirduso, W. W., & Zijlstra, G. A. (2012). Long-Term Effects of Three Multicomponent Exercise Interventions on Physical Performance and Fall-Related Psychological Outcomes in Community-Dwelling Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 60(3), 437-446. doi:10.1111/j.1532-5415.2011.03859.x

Physical Activity and Older Adults. (2015, June 19). https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_olderadults/en/.

Shatil E. (2013). Does combined cognitive training and physical activity training enhance cognitive abilities more than either alone? A four-condition randomized controlled trial among healthy older adults. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 5, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2013.00008

Singh-Manoux A, Kivimaki M, Glymour MM, et al. Timing of onset of cognitive decline: results from Whitehall II prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2012;344:d7622. Published 2012 Jan 5. doi:10.1136/bmj.d7622

Nagamatsu, L. S., Handy, T. C., Hsu, L., Voss, M., Liu-Ambrose, T., (2012). Resistance Training Promotes Cognitive and Functional Brain Plasticity in Seniors With Probable Mild Cognitive Impairment. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172(8), 666. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.379

What is resistance training? (2018, February 2). https://exercise.trekeducation.org/resistance-training/what-is-resistance-training/.

Yu, F., Nelson, N. W., Savik, K., Wyman, J. F., Dysken, M., & Bronas, U. G. (2013). Affecting cognition and quality of life via aerobic exercise in Alzheimer's disease. Western journal of nursing research35(1), 24–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193945911420174

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