Healthy Holidays Challenge: Strength Train to Boost Your Brain Health

By the Editors of SilverSneakers |

What’s good for your body is also good for your brain, and strength training is proof. Plus, a quick workout to try right now.

The holidays have a way of throwing even the most dedicated health enthusiast off their game. Not this year! All month long, follow along as SilverSneakers LIVE trainer Shannon Thigpen unwraps our best tips for staying healthy, happy, and, yes, even calm during this busy time of year. Check in here and on our Facebook page for new activities to try. Here’s to your healthiest, happiest holiday season ever! 

Strength training is prized for the way it can make you stronger overall. It’s also been shown to boost other physical measures like improved blood sugar regulation and increased bone density, according to the Physical Guidelines for Americans  

But it’s not only your body that’s reaping the advantages. “Your brain loves strength training, too,” says SilverSneakers LIVE trainer Shannon Thigpen.   

Here are three mental perks tied to strength workouts:  

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1. Better Cognitive Function

In a study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging, researchers recruited 37 women over age 65 and split them into two groups. One was a control group that did no additional exercise beyond their usual activity, while the other group undertook a structured strength-training program three times per week. 

After 12 weeks, there was no change in the first group. The strength trainers, however, saw significant improvements not just in their upper and lower body strength, but also in their brain functions, such as the ability to process new information more efficiently. 

These results are in line with other research. For example, a study in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport looked at strength training and cognition in middle-aged adults. Researchers found that just one session of this type of exercise can lead to improvements in areas of the brain that enable us to plan, focus, retain information, and juggle tasks.   

And 2021 research in the journal Brain Sciences showed that older women who exercised three times a week for six months saw significant improvements in both cognitive function and telomere length. Telomeres act as a biological clock for your cells, and the longer the better for healthy aging.    

2. Sharper Memory

Part of improved cognitive function is the ability to recall both short-term and long-term information, as well as store those memories more efficiently. Research suggests strength training can help with that as well.  

A study in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport looked at middle-aged adults who undertook high-intensity, structured resistance training and compared them to participants who did moderate-intensity training. Researchers found there was no difference between the two groups when it came to enhanced memory function. That means you don’t need to ramp up your training for better brain health, even a lower level of effort can have an effect. 

3. Happier Mood

There tends to be a great deal of emphasis on the physical effects of aging — like changes to your bone density, heart function, and mobility. While those are all obviously important, it’s also essential to recognize that you may experience mental health shifts as you get older.  

For example, according to the National Council on Aging, older adults face the same stressors as younger people but also encounter a host of unique depression risk factors. Those include everything from managing multiple chronic conditions to dealing with financial anxieties related to retirement to handling feelings of isolation or loneliness.   

Older adults are also more likely to experience bereavement, the organization adds, which can be another difficult stressor, especially around the holidays.  

While getting appropriate medical treatment for clinical depression is crucial, strength training can be helpful if you’re experiencing occasional bouts of the blues or just want a midday pick-me-up.  

A study in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills looked at strength training’s effects on healthy older adults who were generally sedentary and found that training three times per week improved their mood overall, plus helped them focus better. 

How Much Strength Training Do You Need?

With those type of benefits, it makes sense that incorporating strength workouts into your routine should be on your to-list, especially during a busy time like the holidays when your brain and mood is likely under more stress. But how much do you need to see a difference? 

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Surprisingly, not much. “Just two to three strength-training workouts a week can do wonders for your brain health and your mental wellness,” says Shannon. “Especially if you make it a full-body routine.” 

She created the Quick Total Body Strength Workout as a multipurpose routine: “You can do it as a stand-alone workout, after a walk, or after you’ve spent some time on a stationary bike or treadmill at the gym.” 

As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition (including osteoporosis), balance issues, or injuries, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.  

Getting in the habit of building strength is helpful not just during the holidays, but year round, and your body and brain will thank you for it.  

Bonus Challenge: Take a SilverSneakers Total Body Strength Class 

In this intermediate-level class, you’ll build power and endurance with a mix of functional strength training exercises. It’s offered both in-person at participating fitness locations (check the gym for times) and online with SilverSneakers LIVE.  

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