musclehead (noun)

  1. a muscular man, esp. one who is involved in bodybuilding, weight lifting, etc.
  2. a dull, stupid person

It’s time to reassess that second definition, because a new study may have just turned it on its head. Weight-training, when done by rodents, changes the cellular environment inside brains to improve thinking, and this may have positive implications for us gym rats who are not literal gym rats.


There have been numerous studies on the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise on memory and cognition. Such activity increases new brain neutrons and reduces inflammation, which can lead to dementia. But there have been far fewer studies on resistance training and brain health and, as the New York Times points out, “the studies have been small and the linkages tenuous.” A rodent study sought to explore how weight-training effects the brain at a cellular level.

Wait…what? Rats workout with weights? Is this a cartoon or real life? Let’s just say it involved weighted pellets, ladders, and Froot Loop rewards. The important thing is weight-training rats administered a drug that induces mild cognitive impairment (similar to early dementia) performed as well, and sometimes slightly better, in memory tests as unimpaired, non-weightlifters. Predictably, a third group of non-weightlifters given the drug performed very poorly.

The memory centers of the weight-trainer brains teemed with enzymes and genetic markers known to help generate new neurons. The brains of the “gym rats” were rebuilding, just at their muscles were.

More research is needed. Can non-impaired subjects also improve their memories by resistance training? And how does this translate to us bipeds? Nevertheless, this was more encouragement for humans, especially the elderly, to hoist metal. Oh, and musclehead is a compliment. Don’t forget it.