Does lifting weights make you smarter?
A recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, by Gretchen Reynolds [read it here], suggests the answer is yes. It has been known for some time that aerobic activity, because it stimulates increased blood flow to the brain, plays a role in the creation of new brain cells [neurogenesis]. Running and other forms of endurance training have elevated neurogenesis in parts of the brain associated with memory and thinking.
Does weight training have similar effects? Although it does not produce the same kind of surge in blood movement to the brain as aerobic training, a number of animal studies [mice and rats] have shown “significantly increased levels of gene activity and brain-derived neurotrophic factor [B.D.N.F.], a growth factor that is thought to spark neurogenesis.”
[How did the researchers get mice to lift weights? In one study, they tied weights to their tails and made them climb a ladder five days a week.]
It’s not really clear whether the same mechanism occurs in humans who perform resistance training, but “the data look promising.” One researcher demonstrated that older women who lifted weights performed significantly better on various tests of cognitive functioning than women who completed toning classes. Also, brain scans of people who lift weights suggest that neurogenesis is occurring in their brains.
Bottom line: the jury is still out, and how resistance training might stimulate changes in cognition remains a mystery. But we know that resistance training benefits cardiovascular health; and we can speculate that resistance training, by strengthening the heart, improves blood flow to the brain, which is associated with better cognitive function.
Reynolds concludes, “The brain benefits from being used, so that, in a neat circle, resistance training may both demand and create additional brain circuitry. Imagine what someone like Einstein might have accomplished if he had occasionally gone to the gym.”