Be strong, think strong. That's the takeaway from recent studies on the connection between moderate exercise at any age and improved mental acuity.
One of the latest studies comes from the University of Eastern Finland.
The Finnish study confirmed that better muscle strength encourages better cognitive abilities for people 50 and older.
The study focused on not just exercise but on muscle strengthening as beneficial to good brain function, especially muscle strength in the upper and lower body.
Similar studies have found that there is a correlation between hand grip strength and better brain function, according to Dr. Ross Andel, a professor at the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida.
"There's a good amount of evidence that grip strength is tied to cognitive behavior quite closely," Andel said, citing more than a half-dozen studies that look at upper body strength and brain function.
This psychomotor connection to the speed of the brain's processing of information is seen as part of an overall healthy body function.
"If I have higher muscle strength, I have higher cognitive function," said Dr. Todd Manini, an associate professor at the University of Florida's Institute on Aging.
Developing higher muscle strength "is progressive," he said. "You have to challenge yourself a little bit (and) make your muscles adapt."
When we do strengthening exercises like pushups, or lift weights or do leg squats with weights, the body produces a neurotrophin "that promotes brain health," Andel said.
While such exercises as walking, jogging and swimming are good, strength training brings greater potential benefits, he said.
Age-related muscle loss typically begins at age 30, Andel said, and the loss continues at about 1 percent a year. Therefore, by age 80, if a person hasn't done much in the way of strength training, the muscle loss could be 50 percent since age 30.
Such dramatic muscle loss is not irreversible, however.
"If a person is alive, it doesn't matter how old they are, they can counter it," Andel said. "It doesn't matter at what age people start. Returns may diminish somewhat, but ... the payoff is great at any age."
Andel recommends a person start "very moderately," using smaller weights and building up. If you can't do 15 repetitions with a certain weight, then step down to a lower weight, he suggested.
"Go easy and listen to your body," he said. "We all develop a little bit of soreness" when we exercise, he added. "Strength training is breaking down muscle cells and then rebuilding. It's a process."
Any sort of strength training will involve hand grip strengthening as well, Andel added, which is an extra benefit.
Working with weights doesn't have to be done at home, either. In fact, there are social benefits to using a gym, according to Heikki Pentikainen, the Finnish study's lead researcher.
"When strength training is performed in a gym," Pentikainen said, "it is easy to engage in conversation with others. Social interaction is also known to be beneficial to cognitive functions."
For the University of Florida's Manini, the slow-and-safe approach to muscle-strengthening exercises is best, especially for older people.
"Like anything else you do for the first time ... it's important they do these in a safe environment. Hold onto something for balance," he suggested. A side rail. A couch. Just in case.
A chat with your doctor before beginning an exercise program is always a good idea, Manini added. "Exercise is generally safe," he said. "People can be as active as they physically can."
Obviously, diseases such as arthritis can hinder an exercise program. "The idea is to be as active as their health will allow," he said.
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