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Seniors in the study exercised on resistance-training machines and used free weights. ((Ron Heflin/Associated Press))

Resistance training can slow seniors' cognitive decline as well as improve their strength and mobility, researchers in B.C. say.

Previous research has found that aerobic exercise such as walking and swimming can help keep people mentally sharp as they age, yet few have looked at the effects on brain health of weight training aimed at building and strengthening muscles and bone.

In a study of 155 women aged 65 to 75, University of British Columbia researchers found those assigned to a year of once- or twice-weekly resistance-training programs showed measurable improvement in cognitive ability.

"We were able to demonstrate that simple training with weights that seniors can easily handle improved ability to make accurate decisions quickly," said principal researcher Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility at Vancouver General Hospital.

The study, in this week's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, randomly assigned the women to one of three exercise groups:

  • Once-a-week resistance training.
  • The same program twice a week.
  • A twice-weekly balance and toning routine.

"What we found at the end of the 12 months was there was a significant improvement in selective attention and … decision-making among those who participated in the resistance-training program versus those who were in the balance and tone group," Liu-Ambrose said from Vancouver.

Testing showed that the women who took part in weight training improved cognitive ability by up to 12.6 per cent after the 12-month program, while those who did only balance and toning exercises regressed slightly after one year.

"There's lots of studies now to suggest that there's a huge interrelationship between cognition and your physical abilities, which shouldn't be that surprising in that the brain does control your motor system as well," said Liu-Ambrose.

Squats and lunges

The program involved exercising on resistance-training machines and using free weights, with the amount of weight and repetitions steadily increased over time.

'What we're trying to show is that resistance training has multiple benefits and it should be promoted moreso among the senior population.' — Teresa Liu-Ambrose, researcher

"We would start with very basic weight-loading stances, such as a simple squat against a wall, but as the year went by we would introduce lunges, lunge walks or reverse lunges to provide not just a loading [increased weight] effect but motor learning effects as well," she said.

Liu-Ambrose said resistance training — a good workout alternative for seniors with limited mobility — is beneficial because weight-bearing exercise helps prevent osteoporosis and the risk of fractures linked to falls.

"And we know resistance training already benefits bone health in terms of helping with bone mass. We know resistance training reduces the amount of age-related loss in muscle mass or muscle strength."

Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, said that with a massive increase in cases of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia expected as the population ages, "anything that can help slow the rate of it is important.

"We always hear about cardiovascular exercise and that it improves dementia and Alzheimer's and gives people a positive outlook … you really don't hear a lot when it comes to strength training," he said from Vancouver.

Add resistance training for seniors

But Milner said statistics show a low percentage of older people engage in weight training.

"The sad thing about it is that, given all things being equal, probably their chosen methodology of exercise should be strength training, because if you can't stand and you can't walk, you're going to fall and you're not going to have the capacity to do cardiovascular exercise."

Liu-Ambrose said there need to be more community programs offering resistance training for seniors and fitness staff trained to work with older people.

"I think overall what we're trying to show is that resistance training has multiple benefits and it should be promoted moreso among the senior population."