Which is Better for Brain Health: Weight Training or Aerobic Exercise?

The benefits of boosting muscle strength for cognitive function and healthy aging.

In This Article

Brain Benefits of Exercise

Exercise has been getting a lot of press lately in the wake of numerous studies suggesting that regular exercise may be as good for the brain as it is for the body.

In fact, studies have found that regular exercise can actually help generate new brain cells, otherwise known as neurogenesis, in areas of the brain linked to memory and cognitive function. (1)

While there are numerous studies linking regular exercise of any kind to better brain function, researchers dug in to find out whether the brain preferred a cardio workout or a weight training workout.

In a recent double-blind study, researchers tested 100 volunteers over the age of 55 with mild cognitive concerns. They were randomly divided into two groups:

Group 1: Received resistance or weight training three days a week

Group 2: Received a fake routine (placebo group)

The resistance training group saw significant improvements in both muscular strength and aerobic fitness, but only the strength scores–not the aerobic scores–were linked to cognitive benefits. (2)

For decades, the recommendation to increase cardiovascular or aerobic workouts for both the brain and body were standard fare. Now, there is compelling evidence that weight or resistance training is actually SUPERIOR to aerobic exercise for inhibiting cognitive decline, age-related muscle loss and the onset of neurodegenerative brain imbalances. Permission to lift weights has been granted!

We Recommend 3 Tips for Effortless Exercise

Many circadian scientists are suggesting weight training over vigorous cardio workouts as well. They suggest that, in an evolutionary setting, running vigorously only happened when fleeing from a threat, and that excessive amounts of that would cause excessive fight-or-flight degenerative stress. (3) While both aerobic and weight training workouts will boost blood flow to the brain, resistance training does so with less “emergency” stress.

In my first book, Body, Mind, and Sport, we published research comparing nose breathing exercise with mouth breathing exercise. We found that when athletes breathe through the nose, there is greater perfusion into the lower lobes of the lungs–where there are fewer fight-or-flight receptors.

Deep nasal breathing was shown to significantly REDUCE fight-or-flight stress during vigorous exercise while INCREASING the calming and restorative parasympathetic nervous system when compared to mouth breathing exercise. (4)

We Recommend 15 Benefits Of Breathing Through Your Nose During Exercise

It is said that the ancient mail runners of Central America and the ancient Greek messengers ran with small stones in their mouths or a small amount of water in their mouths. If you were to try this, you will quickly realize that it is impossible to breathe through your mouth with water or small stones in your mouth. (5)

1. Whey

Whey protein, being the major protein in mother’s milk, is a very easy protein to digest. Studies have found that it is especially effective in building muscle mass in older adults who tend to lose muscle weight as they age. (6) Numerous studies suggest a higher intake of protein for older adults. Whey protein is an easy way to meet the age-related protein demands. >>> Learn more about whey protein here

2. Vitamin D

Low vitamin D levels have been shown to contribute to loss of muscle mass and strength in older individuals. (7) Optimize your vitamin D levels by maintaining blood levels between 50-80 ng/mL year-round.  >>> Learn more about vitamin D here

3. Omega-3 Fish Oils

The EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils have been found to preserve muscle mass and reduce muscle soreness after weight training exercise. (8) >>> Learn more about fish oils here


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17374720
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28304092
  3. Wiley T.S. Lights Out, Sleep Sugar and Survival. Atria Books, New York. 2000
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8734567
  5. Douillard J. Body Mind and Sport. Harmony Books. New York. 2000
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12368423
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15811435
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27441600

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