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Brawn good for the brain and the body

Brawn good for the body and the brain
Photo: Brawn good for the body and the brain
If you lift weights, you're a lean, mean fighting machine. That's what the research reveals if we're talking about fighting major diseases of the mind and body. But is it safe to start weight training at any age? We asked the experts to weigh in – excuse the pun –on the benefits and how to begin!

The research is compelling

A recent study by researchers at the University of Sydney found that lifting weights can slow and even halt degeneration over a long period in brain areas particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease.

Dr Katheryn Broadhouse, who led the study, said the research demonstrates that strength training has significant positive long-term biological effects.
"Our research shows that strength training can protect some hippocampal subregions from degeneration or shrinkage for up to 12-months after the training has stopped."

Senior author of the study, Professor Michael Valenzuela, believes the findings should change the dementia prevention message.

"This is the first time any intervention, medical or lifestyle, has been able to slow and even halt degeneration in brain areas particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease over such a long time.

"Given this is also linked to cognitive decline, the message is clear – resistance exercise needs to become a standard part of dementia risk-reducing strategies," said Professor Valenzuela.

Weight training also protects the heart as we age. A study by the Iowa State University found that lifting weights for as little as an hour a week may reduce your risk for heart attack and stroke by 40 to 70 per cent.

Lifting weights also keeps the body trim by shrinking fats cells. A study published in the FASEB Journal found that muscle cells release particles that instruct fat cells to metabolise after weight training.

Benefits of weight training

Weight training, or resistance training, is any exercise that loads our musculoskeletal system. The load can be bodyweight, resistance bands or weights, explains physiotherapist Dr Tania Gardner.

"Most of us have heard about how resistance training helps us to get stronger and build bigger muscles, but there are many more benefits."

Adaptations in the muscle fibres and neuromuscular activation result in several benefits:
• Increase muscle mass
• Increase in muscle strength and power
• Improved joint flexibility
• Improved balance and reduction in falls risk

Other physiological benefits from resistance training include:
• Stimulation of bone growth
• Improved cardiorespiratory function
• Improved glucose metabolism
• Improved cholesterol control

Psychological benefits include:
• Improved mood management
• Improved cognition and prevention of cognitive decline in older population
• Increase in social interaction

"All of these changes combined results in an improved capacity to maintaining independence and improved function and ability to engage in life."

Physiotherapist Tim Dettmann says every Australian should lift weights twice per week to reap health benefits.

"After the age of 60, you lose one per cent of your strength every year, but irrespective of age, weight training lowers the risk of chronic disease and maximises quality of life.

"We know that lifting weights decreases pain from injury. But it has an amazing ability to prevent as well.

"People who lift weights are 50 per cent less likely to get injured from sport, they are less likely to suffer depression and are less likely to get cancer.

"Lifting weights is an effective treatment for osteoporosis and diabetes - conditions that collectively affect over five million Australians."

Physical benefits aside, lifting weights is also good for the brain.

"If you lift weights, research shows your brain will shrink less as you age. Yes, lifting weights will give you a bigger brain!

"Your hippocampus and frontal lobe will be more efficient, and your memory, learning, and executive function will benefit," says Mr Dettmann.

Weight training at any age and stage

Physiotherapist Dane Ford says getting started with weight training is achievable at any age with proper guidance.

"You just need to start slowly, stick to a plan, and be consistent - even performing weight training just twice per week can have great health benefits if you stick to it. 

"It is never too late to get started with weight-lifting, even if you experience conditions such as osteopenia, osteoporosis or osteoarthritis.

"Studies have shown the benefits of strength training versus arthroscopic knee surgery for conditions such as degenerative meniscus tears and osteoarthritis after a 12-week exercise program," says Mr Ford.

Budget need not be a barrier to weight training, explains Mr Ford, as there are simple exercises you perform at home without equipment.

"Dumbbells or kettlebells are great tools to use for weight-lifting, but if you don't have access to weight equipment, you can get started by performing bodyweight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and lunges at home."

Mr Dettmann says very few people shouldn't do strength training, and many can participate under the guidance of a medical professional.

"I was recently part of a study that showed that when supervised and in the right setting, it was safe to start strength training on machines within two weeks of cardiac surgery."

Older Australians embarking on a weight training program should begin with body weight before progressing to heavier weights, adds Dr Gardener.

"A good guide to start with if you are over 50 is to use a load that you can comfortably complete two to three sets of 12 repetitions.

"If your schedule allows, this should be repeated two to three times a week.

"Your load can start with your body weight, such as climbing stairs, squats against the wall, sit to stand from a chair or four-point kneeling push-ups.

"Progress and increase your load slowly to resistance bands or low weights.

"The beauty of resistance training is that you can use items in your own home to get started, such as cans from the pantry or plastic bottles filled with water or sand!"

Patsy Tierney, an accredited weight-lifting coach, advocates for weight-lifting at any age, especially for those over 50.

"As we age, we lose muscle size and strength, which means physical activities become harder, and we increase our risk of injury and most significantly falls.

"This is a big driving factor for many of my new clients who want to continue playing sport, running around with their grandkids and ultimately being able to live independently.

"If you don't have much experience with weight training, I suggest signing up at a local gym for a beginners weight training program.

"If injury or a medical condition means you'll need more guidance, seek out an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist. Many now work in fitness centres or have their own facility and will program weight training in the safest way for you."

Strength training often conjures images of muscle-bound weightlifters, adds Mr Dettmann, but it shouldn't!

"It should conjure images of healthy, smart, independent people ageing gracefully because they are strong!"

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.