The Effects of Resistance Training on Brain Plasticity in the ElderlyEdit

Research BackgroundEdit

Aging is an unavoidable part of life. Considering the life expectancy of the population is increasing it is important to research into ways the effects of aging can be postponed, rehabilitated or slowed to improve the overall health of the elderly. Exercise and other lifestyle habits have been linked to improving learning, memory, delaying age related cognitive decline and reduce rick of neurodegeneration[1].

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 4.3% of all registered deaths in 2010 were related to diseases of the nervous system. Alzheimer’s constituted 43.6% of these deaths and Parkinson’s was responsible for 19.8%[2]. Brain Plasticity is the term used in relation to the brains ability to adapt and/or change. It can be altered at different points in our lives for better or for worse. It has an effect on all aspects of learning; whether it be learning a new movement or something as simple as remembering a person’s name.

The maintenance of functional plasticity of the cortex has been labelled as ‘essential’ for healthy aging[3]. There has been multiple studies highlighting the relationship between aerobic exercise as a behavioural intervention and the promotion of functional plasticity in the elderly. This wiki is based on a study conducted by Liu-Ambrose, Nagamatsu et al (original article) in 2010 focussed on resistance training to see whether it had a similar relationship to functional plasticity in the elderly as aerobic exercise. Previous studies haven’t focussed on resistance training; however most have found positive correlations between exercise and brain health/repair.

Where is the research from?Edit

The research was based in the University of British Columbia, Vancouver with many different departments involved including; The Brain Research Centre, Department of Physical Therapy, Department of Psychology and the Department of Family Practice. It was funded by; The Vancouver Foundation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

What kind of research was this?Edit

The study was a randomised, controlled 52 week prospective study within the time period of May 2007 to April 2008. It was based on a representative sample of elderly woman living within Vancouver, Canada.

What did the research involve?Edit


A sample of women between the ages of 65 to 75 underwent a pre-screening to ensure they fit the criteria for the study. After the pre-screening there were 52 of the original 88 participants included in the study and analysis that were split into 3 different groups outlined below.


Before the commencement of the study, the subjects were analysed to see whether they were eligible to participate. There were many criteria that had to be met to be a part of the study and these are;

  • Aged 65-75 years
  • Living independently in their own home
  • Scored ≥ 24 on the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE)
  • A visual acuity of at least 20/40 (with or without corrective lenses)
  • Absence of medical conditions that exercise could be potentially harmful to that person
  • Hasn’t participated in resistance training within six months
  • No history of strokes or neurodegenerative disease
  • Haven’t been diagnosed with depression
  • Fluent in English
  • Weren’t taking with cholinesterase inhibitors
  • Not undertaking oestrogen or testosterone therapy

Once baseline testing concluded to see who was eligible to participate in the study there were three separate groups that would be tested in relation to different activity. These three groups were; once-weekly resistance training (RT1), twice-weekly resistance training (RT2) and twice-weekly balance and tone training (BAT). The members in each group were determined by a randomization sequence from the website www.randomization.com.

For the two resistance training groups (RT1, RT2) a progressive loading system was used; both a Keiser Pressurized Air System and free weights were used. The participants trained within a rep range of 6 to 8 for 2 sets. When the participants performed the movement with correct form and without discomfort the training intensity was increased to a 7RM method. Other exercises involved included minisquats, minilungese and lunge walks. The balance and tone participants performed stretching exercise, range of motion exercises, core strength exercises and relaxation techniques. This group was included as a confounding variable to add more validity to the study.

What were the basic results?Edit

The findings from this study found that senior woman who participated in resistance training twice a week had improved performance on flanker tasks accompanied by an increased efficiency of response inhibition processes. This study provides good evidence into the fact that resistance training has a positive effect on the functional plasticity of the cortex. However the benefits associated with the resistance training was only observed within the group that trained twice per week.

How did the researchers interpret the results?Edit

The subjects personal measures were taken including; age, height, weight, level of education and falls within the past 12 months. These were split into the three separate exercise groups and the mean result displayed with the standard deviation. Data was collected by using a 3T Intera Achieva MRI scanner to determine which parts of the brain were more active throughout. The results were presented in graphs with images of some of the scans provided showing the active areas of the brain.

What conclusions should be taken away from this research?Edit

Resistance training and aerobic training can target different areas of the brain; therefore granting the possibility of potentially having the ability to implement different/more effective strategies when treating and/or rehabilitating somebody with a disease of the nervous system. The areas of the brain affected by resistance training could potentially compliment aerobic trainings effect on selective attention. It’s possible that combining both aerobic training and resistance training could potentially have an even greater positive effect on brain plasticity in seniors.

What are the implications of this research?Edit

This study shows that introducing resistance training two times a week has a positive impact on brain plasticity in elderly woman. This study further supports the previous claims by other studies stating that aerobic exercise is an effective way of maintaining brain health[4]. This has added a new dimension of thinking in relation to exercise and brain plasticity. Considering resistance training sessions generally only take 30-60 minutes to complete it should be reasonably simple to add these sessions into a senior’s week. Considering the aging of elderly peoples bodies it’s possible that resistance training could be an easier method for those who suffer from joint or cardiovascular disorders than aerobic exercise.


  1. Cotman, C. (2007) Exercise Builds Brain Health: Key Roles of Growth Factor Cascades and Inflammation. Trends in Neurosciences. 30(9): 464-472
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2010) Diseases of the Nervous System. 3303.0 - Causes of Death, Australia, 2010. Available from <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/E9AE6DDF5D8153E9CA2579C6000F6FF6?opendocument>
  3. Liu-Ambrose, T. Nagamatsu, L, et al. (2012) Resistance training and functional plasticity of the aging brain: a 12-month randomized controlled trial. Neurobiology og Aging 33. 1690-1698
  4. Erickson, K. (2009) Aerobic Exercise Effects on Cognitive and Neural Plasticity in Older Adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine 43(1). 22-25

The full article this wiki is based on by Liu-Ambrose et al can be found here