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Fitness Australia calls on Australians to lift the bar on strength training

Fitness Australia calls on Australians to lift the bar on strength training
November 3, 2016

Following the results of two recent studies into the advantages of weight training, Fitness Australia is calling on Australians to do more of it.

Fitness Australia Chief Executive Bill Moore explains “we know the advantages of weight training but as a nation there aren’t enough of us doing it.

“Basically the stronger you become the greater the benefit for your brain.”

Moore’s comments follow studies by researchers at the UNSW’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) and the Universities of Sydney and Adelaide, and the FIT and WELL Study conducted by Victoria University’s Institute of Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL).

Led by Dr Jason Bennie, the FIT and WELL Study found 90% of Australians are not meeting the global and national muscle-strengthening activity recommendations.

Released earlier this year, the study of nearly 200,000 Australians reveals that nine out of 10 do not meet the guidelines of twice weekly strength training, leading the authors to conclude, "given the multiple health benefits associated with participation in sufficient muscle-strengthening activity these findings are of a public health concern."

Strength training can include lifting weights (barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells), using resistance bands or body weight (push-ups, sit-ups, squats).

Commenting on the results to the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Bennie explains “the findings are based on self-reporting (and) people tend to over-report (so) the figures get a little frightening when you think about it like that."

With a lack of exercise the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the world, most considerations tend to focus on aerobic exercise, which most people are also not doing enough of.

However, in recent years, the importance of strength training has also been highlighted.

Research has shown that benefits of strength training include improved metabolism, bone density, blood lipid profile, physical and mental performance, reduced body fat, reduced blood pressure and reduced risk of diabetes.

Dr Bennie does see objections to weight training, adding “there are negative stereotypes associated with weight-lifting," stating that it is often seen as "hyper-masculine ... females may think they will put on a lot of muscle and there might be an association with Arnold Schwarzenegger-type characters."

There is also the fear of injury, although research does not support this fear.

Dr Bennie believes we need a public health plan to provide the places, spaces and support for people to get lifting in a safe way, stating “we need to make weight training easier," he says, suggesting people may seek professional advice for technique.

"A lot of people don't know where to start."

The benefits of weight training for older Australians have been highlighted in the Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART) trial a collaboration between UNSW’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) and the Universities of Sydney and Adelaide.

The study, published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, found increased muscle strength led to improved brain function in adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) – those with reduced cognitive abilities – a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.

With 135 million people worldwide forecast to suffer from dementia in 2050, the study’s findings have implications for the type and intensity of exercise that is recommended for our growing ageing population.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) defines people who have noticeably reduced cognitive abilities such as reduced memory but are still able to live independently, and is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.

SMART was a randomised, double-blind trial involving 100 community-dwelling adults with MCI, aged between 55 and 86.

They were divided into four groups doing either:

• Resistance exercise and computerised cognitive training;
• Resistance exercise and a placebo computerised training (watching nature videos);
• Brain training and a placebo exercise program (seated stretching/calisthenics); or
• Placebo physical exercise and placebo cognitive training.

Participants doing resistance exercise prescribed weight lifting sessions twice week for six months, working to at least 80% of their peak strength. As they got stronger, the amount of weight they lifted on each machine was increased to maintain the intensity at 80% of their peak strength.

The primary outcomes of a paper published in 2014 found these participants’ global cognition improved significantly after the resistance training, as measured by tests including the Alzheimer’s disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive scale. The cognitive training and placebo activities did not have this benefit.

The benefits persisted even 12 months after the supervised exercise sessions ended.

Lead author Dr Yorgi Mavros, from the Faculty of Health Sciences at University of Sydney, explains “the more we can get people doing resistance training like weight lifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier ageing population.

“The key however is to make sure you are doing it frequently, at least twice a week, and at a high intensity so that you are maximising your strength gains. This will give you the maximum benefit for (the) brain.”

Findings from the SMART trial show, for the first time, a positive causal link between muscle adaptations to progressive resistance training and the functioning of the brain among those over 55 with MCI.

CHeBA Co-Director Professor Perminder Sachdev explains “the people I meet often ask me the question: what kind of exercise should I do to protect my brain? This study goes some way in answering this question, even though much further work remains.”

Moore concludes “the results of both of these studies reinforce the importance of the type and intensity of people’s exercise, plus the need for more health practitioners to be prescribing exercise to patients.

“In particular to those aged over 55 years, for short and long term health benefits. Most people generally think about the positive physical benefits of weight training but don’t consider how much benefit their brain is getting too. This makes it a win-win activity.”

Dr Bennie’s ISEAL study was part-funded by Fitness Australia.

The SMART trial was funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.

Click here for more information on ISEAL.

Click here for information on the SMART trial.

Images used for illustrative purposes only.

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