Our good friends at CNN report that a paper in the journal Neurology adds to the evidence that Exercise slows the rate of cognitive decline in people who take the idea seriously. The good news is that it obviously does.
The bad news is that CNN, along with the rest of the mainstream media, continues to perpetuate the idea that Exercise means Running, and that a better approach doesn’t really exist.
The study compared the cognitive decline of older adults who performed what they themselves considered “moderate to heavy-intensity exercise” to that of people of the same age group who basically sat squarely on their butts. Baseline scores were taken and followed up five years later with a repeat assessment.
This was a pretty good study, with 876 people completing the exit assessment, and the data were well-compiled and analyzed over a comparatively long period of time, thus taking it up a notch or two from the vast majority of exercise science. (And really, this is not exercise science anyway — it is serious investigation using a large cohort, extensive funding, and actual professional academicians.)
But as is the norm these days in the investigative sciences, the conventional wisdom prevails, and the potential for much more powerful intervention in the process of cognitive decline remains uninvestigated.
Instead of Exercise, “high-intensity” defined here as “running and aerobics,” they could have been investigating Training: the planned application of gradually increasing physical stress. More specifically, strength training.
All you need to know is already there, in the article: the higher the intensity of the exercise, the more effective the cognitive preservation of the human performing the activity.
The higher the intensity of any exercise, the more the energy requirements of the exercise shift from oxygen-dependent processes that use fat for fuel (“aerobics”) toward anaerobic processes that use carbohydrate for fuel. Many studies have established a link between carbohydrate metabolic disorders and dementia. There is a decent body of evidence that associates Type II Diabetes with cognitive decline, if not outright Alzheimer’s.
The last piece of the puzzle is this: strength training is almost completely reliant on carbohydrate metabolism, and any properly designed program has immediate and profound effects on blood sugar levels. And bigger muscles are capable of storing more carbohydrate (one of their normal functions) more efficiently than smaller muscles, thus giving the active body a useful place to put it instead of converting it to fat.
Strength training is a much more powerful tool than running and aerobics for the modification of carbohydrate metabolism.
Strength training is scalable: it can be precisely administered at the proper level for each person. It is precisely increasable: the loads used can be adjusted upward as gradually as necessary to force a beneficial adaptation. And it is chronically therapeutic: strength can increase as a result of training for many years, and the health benefits that accrue from accumulating strength can continue to accumulate as well, long after the benefits from running and aerobics have stopped.
We have previously discussed the advantages of getting stronger over merely getting out of breath. Most people do not understand that proper strength training gets you out of breath too, and therefore provides all the benefits of getting “in shape” that running provides while also making you stronger.
Running has a much higher injury rate than strength training.
(“Study: Researchers claim mysterious increase in knee pathology within confines of Central Park” — CNN, probably)
And running doesn’t make you stronger, because you don’t have to be strong to run. Even if running and strength training were equally effective in modifying carbohydrate metabolism (they’re not — strength training works much better and faster), strength training contributes more to a higher quality of life.
Among the people who do not understand the benefits of strength training are the researchers who perform studies of the type featured in this CNN article.
One of the most important reasons that these questions remain under-investigated is that the people in charge of doing the studies have no personal experience with correctly designed strength training programs.
The overwhelming majority of these researchers have never performed squats and deadlifts, they have never experienced a five-month-long period of continual strength increase, and they simply do not know what effective strength training is, or how the programs are organized.
It is true that there are many studies in The Literature on what is termed “resistance training.” Here is an example, from The Journal of Advanced Research, Volume 2, Issue 2, April 2011, Pages 179 – 183:
Patients in group B were submitted to a 40 min session of resistance training. The programme began with 10 min of stretching for the major muscles of the upper and lower limbs and was conducted with exercises on eight resistance machines. The manual resistance machines used were chest press, bicep curl, triceps extension, lower back, abdominals, leg press, leg curl and leg extension. Subjects performed three sets of 8–12 repetitions, with 60 s of rest between each set. Resistance was increased by five pounds after the subject was able to complete three sets of eight repetitions on three consecutive days.
I assure you that this is a representative example of what is used as a “resistance training” protocol in the exercise literature. I am quite sure they don’t understand endurance training, either.
Perhaps it also has to do with the rodent studies that normally serve as preliminary investigations. The mainstream media is constantly reporting that recent studies have demonstrated that A New Pill may someday replace exercise. These are always outlandish extrapolations from animal studies, and the animals most studied are rodents. Rats and mice like to run on treadmills — some of them really like to run on treadmills, so it is easy to get them to do things that are convenient analogs for human exercise, as long as exercise is running. Rodents do not like to lift weights.
So, there are few rodent studies on weight training, and there are very few researchers who lift weights. What they do not understand, they cannot investigate. And one of the things they cannot investigate is the powerful effect strength training has on the diseases of carbohydrate metabolism.
Here we sit, with this amazingly powerful tool for the improvement of people’s lives at our disposal, and the academic world still wants us all to run.