Little did I know, but all those push-ups I did in high school did a little bit more than develop a barrel chest. While the brain isn’t technically a muscle, contemporary science is beginning to reveal what us meatheads have always suspected: that lifting heavy things isn’t just about building bigger biceps. Resistance training has been shown to improve markers of mental health and directly influence memory and executive function-related skills. Pushing yourself physically may be the one of the best ways to progress neurologically and psychologically.
There is a complex network of neurophysiological adaptations that occur with resistance training that can directly and indirectly affect mental processes. Studies have shown that intense exercise has a similar effect on the brain as it does on muscles. By directly inducing glycogen supercompensation, resistance training essentially forces more energy into the brain than it is normally able to handle. Another study found that exercise improves brain vascular function, neurogenesis, and synaptic plasticity, strengthening the underlying systems that regulate brain development. While we don’t know that these effects turn us all into Mensa candidates, the same way getting a “pump” makes us feel temporarily physically invincible like the Hulk, there is clear evidence that pushing your body also prompts structural and functional changes within various regions of the brain and encourages overall brain health.
A significant amount of research has associated strength training with a number of cognitive benefits, especially memory and executive function. Executive function, the set of mental processes that help us make decisions and complete tasks, is the cognitive function most associated with strength training. It’s really difficult to directly examine the effects of exercise on the human brain, but we have been able to identify the acute structural responses. Several animal studies have shown that regular and individual bouts of exercise induce positive responses on the brain’s central neural structures. Specifically, regular exercise has been connected to improvements in hippocampus function (the area of the brain believed to regulate memory). The most interesting thing is that these benefits are experienced both chronically and acutely. Consistent exercise can promote long-term functional and structural adaptions in our brain’s memory center, but even a single intense workout can improve memory consolidation. Unfortunately, as quickly as our exercise and other healthy habits may build them up, the natural aging process can break down our cognitive and executive functioning abilities.
Father time doesn’t just break down our bodies, but our minds as well. Squatting and deadlifting has shown to be one of the best ways to harness our inner Benjamin Button. While normally caused by injury or disease, the process of aging also causes the development of brain lesions, which decrease several metrics of brain function. Resistance training as little as twice a week has been shown to decrease the development of white matter lesions as we age. In older adults, the same exercises that can help ward off sarcopenia and maintain functional movement also help maintain attention/conflict resolution and basic memory skills. The mechanism behind the preservation of these age-declining abilities is intense activation of the occipital association cortex and inferior temporal gyrus, parts of the brain generally associated with memorization and functional plasticity.
What about anxiety, stress, and depression? Yep, picking up heavy stuff has that covered too. Numerous studies have shown that resistance training is a meaningful intervention for people suffering from anxiety and correlated factors, such as sleep deprivation, mental distress, and self-esteem. A review of studies involving clinical depression came to the overwhelming conclusion that participation in resistance training can prompt large reductions in depression and associated symptoms. While some of the underlying mechanisms of these effects are obvious (i.e., improved body composition and health make people feel good), it is a bit deeper. Research has shown that resistance training can result in multi-factorial adaptations involving new nerve cell generation in the brain, an increase in neurotransmitters, and improved central nervous system functioning. Exercise not only improves the efficiency of the heart and muscles, but it also improves the oxygen delivery and waste removal mechanisms in the brain.
The level of synergy between the body and mind is just beginning to be understood. While the research is still in its infancy, what we do know is that resistance training builds our mental and emotional muscles just as effectively as it does our physical muscles.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.