Now that Canada’s all-too-brief beach season is winding down, you might be tempted to shove the dumbbells into the back of the closet – to ditch the vanity, forget about bulging muscles, and focus instead on full-body aerobic fitness. which is so closely linked to health and longevity.
But a recent study by McGill University researchers, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, offers a new reason to keep working on building muscle: It’s good for your brain, not just your biceps. Greater muscle mass, according to the findings, helps prevent cognitive decline in older adults beyond what might be expected based on their exercise level alone.
The results are drawn from more than 8,000 older adults from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, with an average age of 73. They underwent a series of baseline assessments that included an X-ray measurement of their muscle mass, a battery of 10 cognitive tests, and questionnaires about their exercise habits and other health characteristics. The cognitive tests were repeated three years later.
At baseline, approximately one-fifth of the subjects met the predefined criteria for low muscle mass. Over the next three years, compared to those with normal muscle mass, these subjects experienced a greater decline in reaction times and executive functions, the cognitive skills that allow you to plan, focus your attention, and prioritize. your actions.
On the surface, these results are not surprising. After all, points out Stephanie Chevalier, a professor in McGill’s School of Human Nutrition and lead author of the study, previous studies have found that low strength and a lack of physical activity predicted more rapid cognitive decline. But there’s a difference between using muscle and just having it.
“The question we asked in our study is: when we take strength and physical activity into account, does muscle mass have an independent predictive role on cognitive decline?” explains Dr. Chevalier.
Using statistical techniques, the researchers were able to compare subjects with equivalent muscle strength, as assessed by a grip test, and equivalent exercise habits. Indeed, those with lower muscle mass still had a faster subsequent decline in executive function, suggesting that muscle tissue itself has some sort of neuroprotective function.
Understanding exactly how muscles help the brain remains a challenge. There are many indirect links: those with more muscles are generally more active, which can help maintain the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, for example.
But Dr. Chevalier’s findings suggest there may also be more direct mechanisms. One possibility is the role of myokines, a collection of hormone-like molecules produced by muscle cells that can travel to the brain and influence mood, learning, and other cognitive functions. Greater muscle mass can also help control blood sugar, thereby protecting the brain from damage.
That’s not to say that strength training is the only path to better brain health. A 2014 study that followed 150,000 walkers and runners over a 17-year period found that meeting the standard recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week was associated with a 25% reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. And those who exercised twice as much had a 40% risk reduction.
So if you want to cover all your bases, the choice between cardio and weights is easy: do both. Incorporate some resistance training into your routine a few times a week. You don’t necessarily need to lift heavy weights, but push hard enough that your effort reaches at least eight out of 10 by the end of each set.
Also, adds Dr. Chevalier, make sure you eat a good diet with enough protein, ideally spread throughout the day rather than concentrated in a massive protein bomb at dinner. Older people have been shown to become less sensitive to the muscle stimulus of protein, so aim for around 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight at each meal. For someone who weighs 150 pounds, that equals 27 grams of protein, the equivalent of a tuna sandwich, a glass of milk, and a handful of almonds.
And remember, the goal still isn’t to wow everyone at the beach next year. A more realistic goal for older adults is to retain the muscle you have and prevent further loss, says Dr. Chevalier, citing the one absolute law of exercise that no one disputes: “Use it or lose it. -the”.
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Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.
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