Don't just exercise your brain
Recently the New Zealand Air Force celebrated its 80th anniversary at the 2017 Air Tattoo. Spectators were treated to a magnificent display involving aircraft from today’s F-16 and F/A-18 jets and back through time to impeccably maintained historic aircraft including the Grumman Avenger, Harvard and Spitfire.
We all know that exercise is good for us. The experts know it's because exercise causes hippocampal neurons to pump out a protein called brain derived neurotropic factor BDNF and this helps to grow new neurons. But is brisk walking, running, cycling or rowing better for us than lifting weights?
Teresa Liu-Ambrose at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver tested the effects of aerobic exercise and strength training in adults known to be at increased risk of developing dementia. After six months, she found that those who combined both walking and lifting weights had a positive effect on spatial memory. Spatial memory is not only essential for piloting aircraft but also provides us with the ability to remember our surroundings and sense of place. Those that lifted weights saw significant improvement in executive function which we all need for complex thinking, reasoning, multitasking, problem solving and processing speed. Associative memory, used to link people’s names to their faces for example, also improved.
The experts have found that strength training triggers the release of a molecule called insulin-like growth factor-1. IGF-1 is a growth hormone produced in the liver that is known to affect communication between brain cells and promote the growth of new neurons and blood vessels. Aerobic exercise boosts PDNF but in addition strength training decreases the level of homocysteine which is an inflammatory molecule that is known to be at increased levels in the brains of older adults with dementia. By combining aerobic exercise with strength training you get a more potent neurobiological cocktail of PDNF and IGF-1 with positive benefits well beyond improving just spatial awareness. The only down side is that you will have to keep exercising to maintain the benefits.
So it does look like I need to put that strength training back into my exercise programme, even though I am not, nor will ever be a pilot like those on show during the 2017 Air Tattoo.
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