In my review of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness a couple of months ago, the importance of certain lifestyle choices—particularly physical exercise— to maintain and enhance brain health was emphasized at length. Intuitively, we all know that physical activity is good for us. The metaphorical “couch potato” is assumed to be a person in poor health, precisely because of his or her lack of movement (and, of course, lazily consumed snacks and mind-numbing television). But even those of us who admonish the couch potato are moving our bodies a lot less these days due to an increase in the number of jobs requiring long periods of sitting. And current research is clear: all that sitting is taking a toll on our health.
So we know we need to get up and get moving. But what kind of exercise is best? So far, cardiovascular, or aerobic, exercise has received most of the attention in the literature. Because it is light-to-moderate in intensity and long in duration, aerobic exercise increases heart rate and circulation for extended periods, which is presumed to trigger biochemical changes in the brain that spur neuroplasticity—the production of new connections between neurons and even of new neurons themselves. It appears that the best regimen of aerobic exercise incorporates, at a minimum, three 30 to 60 minute sessions per week. In short, plenty of research has found that myriad positive physical and cognitive health benefits are correlated with aerobic exercise.
But what about non-aerobic exercise, such as strength training? The truth is that very little is known about the effects of non-aerobic exercise on cognitive health. What few studies exist show a positive effect of strength training on cognitive health, but the findings are definitely less conclusive than the plethora of evidence supporting aerobic exercise.
However, a lack of research should not be interpreted as negative results. I think non-aerobic exercise has received less research attention because, well, it is harder and appears less accessible than aerobic exercise. It is probably easier to get research participants to commit to a straightforward exercise regimen that doesn’t involve a lot of explanation or study to figure out. Let’s face it: pushing pedals on a stationary bike requires less mental effort than figuring out how to perform weight-bearing exercises with good form.
At worst, we may ultimately discover that non-aerobic exercise has no cognitive benefits. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because strength training does, in fact, promote a number of physical effects that are of great overall benefit to health, especially to the aging individual. Indeed, one would be remiss to omit strength training from any exercise regimen designed to promote healthy aging and a long, physically fit life.
The primary, and most obvious, effect of strength training is that of muscle development, or hypertrophy. Muscles function to produce force and motion and skeletal muscles are responsible for maintaining and changing posture, locomotion, and balance. Anyone who wishes to look and feel strong, physically capable, and well-balanced would do well to develop the appropriate muscles to reach these goals. Muscle mass declines with age, so it is smart to build a reserve of muscle in a relatively youthful state and to maintain it with regular workouts for as long as possible. Doing so will stave off the functional decline known as frailty, a recognized geriatric syndrome associated with weakness, slowing, decreased energy, lower activity, and unintended weight loss.
Those who know me know that I am very, very thin. At 5 foot 9 inches, it has always been a struggle to maintain my weight above 90 lbs.—a full 40 lbs. underweight for a woman of my height. This is almost certainly due, in large part, to genetics (my parents are both rail-thin), and no amount of eating has ever worked to put on additional pounds. Over the years, I grew more concerned about what my underweight meant in terms of disease risks as I age. In particular, dual energy x-ray absorbiometry (DEXA) scans for bone mineral density at age 27 and 33 showed accelerated bone loss beyond what is normal for my age. I was on a trajectory for a diagnosis of osteoporosis by my mid-40s.
Besides ensuring adequate calcium intake, I knew that the best prescription for slowing down bone loss is to perform weight-bearing exercises. Strength training causes the muscles to pull on the bone, resulting in increased bone strength. Strength training also increases muscle strength and flexibility, which reduces the likelihood of falling—the number-one risk factor for hip fracture.
So I dusted off my long-unused gym pass and started strength training 3 to 4 times a week. I was too weak to even lift weights in the beginning, so I started with body weight exercises and gradually progressed to weight machines. Weight machines allow you to build strength and to gain an understanding of how an exercise works a particular muscle or group of muscles. Many machines also have a limited range of motion within which to perform the exercise, providing some guidance on how to perform the movement. As I made improvements in strength, I began reading about strength training exercises online and downloaded some apps to help me in the gym.
For a basic “how-to,” nothing beats a video. There are plenty of exercise demonstration videos on YouTube.com and several other sites, but I prefer the definitive (and straight-to-the-point) visual aids provided by Bodybuilding.com. They offer short instructional videos for just about every strength training exercise in existence. The videos also download quickly and play easily on a mobile device, in case you need a refresher in the gym.
There are a lot of great apps out there, too. My favorites so far include PerfectBody (and associated apps by the same developer), GymPact, and Fitocracy. PerfectBody provides weekly workout routines, complete with illustrated descriptions of exercises and the ability to track your progress by documenting weight lifted and number of repetitions (reps) for each exercise. It is an all-in-one fitness program for learning foundational exercises and building strength and confidence in the gym.
If you have a hard time committing to a workout schedule, Gympact may help. One of the latest in a series of apps that make you put your money where your mouth is, you make a Gympact agreement to go to the gym a minimum number of times per week in order to earn monetary rewards for doing so. The catch is that you are charged money if you fail to meet your pact (which helps to pay all those committed gym-goers who didn’t renege on their promises). For many, the thought of losing money can provide quite the incentive to get your tail to the gym.
Now that you’ve got exercise examples, progress tracking, and motivation to actually get to the gym, how about some fun? Fitocracy is an app that turns exercise into a game, letting you track your exercise in return for points and “level ups” like a video game. There are challenges to meet and quests to conquer, adding to the competitive game-play element. But there’s also a nice social aspect, with friends and groups enabling people to “prop” one another and to provide support and advice.
Once you start pumping iron, you may quickly realize a need for nutrition adequate to meet your new muscle-building goals. As we all know, protein is the most important nutrient for building muscle. And while I will not attempt to provide advice regarding the appropriate nutrient ratio for the calories you consume each day, I can tell you that it is generally recommended to get at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day if you want to support muscle growth.
Adequate protein consumption is necessary even if you are not strength training and becomes even more important as you age. Reduced appetite and food intake, impaired nutrient absorption, and age-related medical and social changes often result in malnourishment. An insufficient intake of protein, in particular, can lead to loss of muscle mass, reduced strength, and many other negative factors leading to frailty.
It seems that whey protein provides the ultimate benefits in this arena. Whey, which is derived from milk, is a high-quality protein supplement with a rich source of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to stimulate protein synthesis and inhibit protein breakdown, helping to prevent agerelated muscle-wasting (i.e., sarcopenia). Besides muscle support, a growing number of studies indicate other positive, antiaging effects of whey such as antioxidant enhancement, anti-hypertensive effect, hypoglycemic effect, and the promotion of bone formation and suppression of bone resorption. Life Extension Foundation recently reported that these effects mimic the benefits of calorie restriction without a reduction of food intake, playing roles in hormone secretion and action, intracellular signaling, and regulation of gene transcription and translation.
There are many whey protein powder supplements on the market in a variety of formulations and flavors. Whey protein isolate is quickly absorbed and incorporated into muscles, making it a good post-workout option, whereas whey protein concentrate is absorbed and incorporated more slowly, making it ideal for consumption just before bedtime. A whey protein powder may consist of isolate only, concentrate only, or both. Choose what best meets your needs and purposes.
Flavor is an important factor to consider, as well. Most major brands offer a variety of flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and some exotic options. Unflavored powders are sometimes available and are a great neutral protein base for mixing into (green) smoothies or other recipes. Some whey protein powders may actually include sugars to “improve” taste, so make sure to read the ingredients. Even many zero carb powders are still quite sweet. Many brands offer sample size packets which can be very helpful in determining whether or not you like a particular flavor or overall taste prior to buying an entire container.
Lastly, consider the sources of whey protein powder ingredients carefully. Not all whey is created equal, and many commercial brands on the market derive their ingredients from dubious sources or from animals treated with hormones and living in less-than-stellar conditions. But there are many great products out there, including Life Extension’s New Zealand Whey Protein Concentrate, which is derived from grass-fed, free range cows living healthy lives in New Zealand and not treated with Growth Hormone (rBST). If you have reservations about whey protein, there are also alternative protein powders that are derived from plants or egg white.
In summary, while the jury is still out regarding the cognitive benefits of nonaerobic exercise, such exercise is still a very important part of an overall plan to support health and longevity. Adequate nutritional support in the form of whey protein supplementation is generally indicated for its many health benefits, and is absolutely integral to muscle-building efforts. At the very least, strength training should complement brain-boosting aerobic exercise and will help to stave off bone loss and frailty as you age. So erase any preconceived notions you may have had about bodybuilding and start lifting today!
Originally published as an article (in the Cooler Minds Prevail series) in Cryonics magazine, October, 2013