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Exercise, Dementia, and Cognitive Impairment

Cognitive decline is one of the most prominent health care concerns of the 21st century. Dementia limits one’s ability to function independently, and independence is a primary component of happiness as we age.  A myriad of behavioral interventions are utilized in the management of cognitive decline and research supports physical activity as an efficacious preventive measure for dementia in seniors.

Recently, a collaboration of Canadian neurologists and exercise scientists sought to determine which mode of exercise was the most effective for combatting cognitive decline and additionally, what mode emerged as the most economically feasible. Their fascinating results were recently published in an open access scientific journal.  The study examined how women ages 70-80 years of age responded to one of three types of exercise:

  • Resistance (Strength) Training using a high intensity training approach.
  • Aerobic exercise.
  • “Balance and Tone” program involving “stretching exercises, range of motion exercises, basic core strength exercises, balance exercises, and relaxation techniques.

The study focused on three cognitive functions: Conflict resolution, set shifting (the ability to think about multiple concepts simultaneously), and working memory.

Researchers concluded that the group performing resistance training significantly improved cognitive function; the aerobic training group received fitness benefits but did not improve cognitive function; and the “Balance and Tone” group showed no improvements.  Additionally, the resistance-training group had lower health care resource utilization costs.

Take home message: Strength training (resistance exercise) is not simply about getting stronger.  The evidence supports strength training as the most effective physical activity intervention for improving cognitive function.  This represents yet another shift to our paradigm of exactly what strength training “is” and the benefits it brings about.  This study also clearly suggests that the fitness community’s migration toward balance, toning, stretching, and “core” exercises represent a step in the wrong direction.

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