Resistance Training to Prevent Cognitive Decline

by Lauren Gold MPH, RDNLifestyle
Women at a workout class

We know that you know the benefits of exercise: it can improve your mood, help you sleep better, and help you maintain cardiovascular health. But what we don’t talk about enough is the impact of exercise on the brain. Targeted exercise does wonders for brain health. You might be thinking, ““I jog regularly…isn’t that good enough?” It’s definitely a great start. Jogging is great for cardiovascular health, so keep it up. However, it is the combination of resistance training and aerobic exercise that has the strongest effect on cognition (1).

Resistance training is exercise in which one’s muscles are moving against a type of weight. The weight can be from standard weights, resistance bands, or simply one’s own body weight. This type of exercise should not be confused with cardiovascular exercise in which the muscles are not pushing or resisting weight.  Multiple studies have shown that resistance training has positive effects on cognitive function among older adult populations (2). Specifically, that resistance training in the older adult population of two times per week showed improvements in executive function such as planning, problem solving, task coordination, and working memory, and resistance training of three times per week showed improvements in global cognitive function (2).

The benefits of resistance training are seen in particular among older adults with cognitive impairment (2). While more research is still needed, there are many biochemical changes occurring during resistance training that may account for this improvement in cognitive function. For instance, resistance training in older adults was shown to decrease biomarkers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein and Interleukin-6 (3). As inflammation is a major contributor to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, a reduction in inflammatory markers in the blood is health promoting and brain protective. Additionally, resistance training has been shown to result in increases in IGF-1, a growth and development hormone (1). IGF-1 increases concentrations of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF is a brain growth factor that acts like ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain- promoting the production of new brain cells and synapses.

Resistance training will also help cognition in individuals that carry one or two of the ApoE4 variants. Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) is a plasma protein found in different isoforms (e2, e3, and e4) (4). ApoE4 has been linked to cognitive impairment and is at this time the strongest known genetic determinant of late onset Alzheimer's disease. The ApoE4 variant promotes production of beta amyloid plaques in the brain that destroy healthy brain cells and inhibit synapses (5). The combination of a sedentary lifestyle and carrying ApoE4 has shown to put individuals at risk for amyloid plaque deposition (6). Beyond the incredible impact of general exercise on cognition, resistance training can help individuals achieve a state of mild ketosis, and mild ketosis is advantageous for ApoE4 carriers.

Now, you don’t need to start training for the next Iron Man in South Africa to get the benefits of resistance training, but you should add resistance training into your routine.

Here is a quick 10 minute resistance training workout you can do inside your home, at a park, or in your backyard! No weights required, only your own body weight. Find a workout partner or play some of your favorite music to pump up your energy! And of course, check with your doctor before getting started to make sure that it is safe for you to do these types of exercises.

This circuit should be repeated 2-3 times, 4 times a week, or at a level that you feel comfortable and safe with.

Warm up:

  • To get your blood flowing throughout your body do 30 jumping jacks, followed by 30 seconds of running in place. (If running in place is too strenuous on your joints or too intense, you can walk in place for 30 seconds, lifting your knees to your chest).
  • Repeat this warm up 2 more times to ensure your muscles are warm and ready to be challenged.


  • Do 5 reps of pushups on your knees and try to get your chin as close to the ground as possible.
  • These can also be modified facing a wall, with both feet 1-2 feet from the wall.
  • For variety, change up the distance of the space between your hands. You’ll feel different muscles in your chest, arms, and back at work!


  • Making sure your knees don’t go over your toes, do 10 lunges with the right leg, 10 with the left leg.
  • If you are having trouble with balancing, do stationary lunges holding on to a table or a wall for support.


  • On your knees, place forearms on the ground keeping your back flat and gluteal muscles squeezed, arms shoulder width apart.
  • Make sure you don’t arch your back by squeezing your gluteal muscles.
  • Hold the plank for 20 seconds.


  • With legs slightly wider than shoulder distance apart, squat down as if you were about to sit in a chair.
  • Squat low so your thighs are close to parallel with the ground.
  • Just like doing your lunges, make sure your knees do not go over your toes.
  • Do 10 squats.
  • Up for a challenge? Hold a few heavy books, 2 cans of beans, or even a piece of dense produce for more resistance.

Bicycle Crunches:

  • Lie on the ground with your hands behind your head, with elbows out to the sides.
  • Bend both knees and put your feet on the ground.
  • Engaging your core, bring one knee to the opposite elbow, keeping arms as wide as possible.
  • Be sure not to pull from your neck!

When you finish your 2-3 reps please make sure you stretch your muscles for safe healing and recovery.


  1. Chang, Yu-Kai. C-Y Pan, F-T Chen. Effect of Resistance-Exercise Training on Cognitive Function in Healthy Older Adults: A Review. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. 2012: 20, 497-1.
  2. Li, Z., W. Xiang, J. Han. The effect of resistance training on cognitive function in the older adults: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2018. PubMed. Web. 20 Aug, 2018.
  3. Sardeli, A.V., C.M. Tomeleri, E.S. Cyrino. Effect of resistance training on inflammatory markers of older adults: A meta-analysis. 2018. PubMed. Web. 30 Aug, 2018.
  4. Feng, Wei. J. Yokoyama. S. Yu. APOE Genotype Affects Cognitive Training Response in Healthy Shanghai Community-Dwelling Elderly Individuals. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015: 47 (4): 1035-1046.
  5. Bredsen, Dale E., MD. (2017). The End of Alzheimer’s. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
  6. Head, Denise. J. Bugg. A. Goate. Exercise engagement as a moderator of APOE effects on amyloid deposition. Arch Neurol. 2012: 69 (5): 636-643.