British Cycling was in a dismal state. In 110 years, no Brit had ever won the Tour de France.
Then suddenly, it all turned around. Between 2007 and 2017, Britain won five Tour de France victories.
“How did they do it?“ you may ask.
It all came down to a strategy known as accumulating marginal gains. We will dive into how you can use this same behavioural technique to strengthen your body in a way that strengthens your brain, regardless of your age.
The secret to success? Washing your hands.
The triumph of the British Cycling team is often attributed to performance director Dave Brailsford, who was obsessed with the concept of marginal gains.
He believed that if you could enhance every little aspect by just 1%, the result would accumulate into a massive improvement over time.
Brailsford changed the trajectory of the cycling team by focusing on details often overlooked by other trainers. This involved examining factors outside of training itself, such as what the athletes ate, what pillow they slept on, and even how they washed their hands.
It doesn’t have to be precisely 1%. The main lesson is that a lot of tiny bits of effort add up over time, whether that is finding the right pillow to get more sleep, washing your hands correctly to avoid getting sick or just making sure that you do some form of exercise every day.
Strong body, stronger brain
A strength exercise is any activity that makes your muscles work harder than usual. Examples of muscle-strengthening activities include:
- Lifting weights
- Working with resistance bands
- Heavy gardening such as digging and shovelling
- Climbing stairs
- Push-ups, sit-ups and squats
While it’s in the name that strength training is designed to improve, well, strength, far fewer people are aware that strengthening exercises can actually improve cognitive function as well.
- By combining data from 24 studies, researchers found that strength and resistance training enhanced cognition (i.e. processing speed, attention and memory), reduced the rate of cognitive impairment, and increased the brain’s ability to do vital processes.
- Six months of strength training can help protect brain areas especially vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease up to one year later, such as the hippocampus, which has a major role in learning and memory.
- Strengthening exercises can improve your working memory (things you learn and use on the hop).
- Even yoga and tai chi can have incredible effects on getting your brain working faster and improving memory.
Getting strong after the age of fifty doesn’t have to be hard work if you follow our guidelines!
Getting one per cent better every day could mean:
- Doing one more rep than you did last time.
- Exercising for one more minute than your previous best.
- Putting in just a tiny bit more effort than your last session.
By harnessing the concept of improving just 1% daily, we’ll help you incorporate strength training into your weekly routine.
Bodyweight sit-to-stand exercise example
From a sitting position, make sure your knees and feet are facing forward from a sitting position.
Stand up without using your arms.
Slowly lower yourself down to your chair as if you are about to sit.
Pretend that your chair is a hot stove so that you have to stand up again immediately.
Elastic pulls Exercise Example
Hold an elastic band in front of you with both hands.
Now pull it apart until the band becomes stretched.(Only pull as far as is safe to reduce the risk of it snapping)
Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
Slowly bring your hands together again.
Class-based exercise example: pilates roll-up
Lie flat on your back on any soft exercise mat.
Keep your legs straight and your arms pointed at the roof.
Tighten your stomach muscles and come up into a sitting position. (If this is too difficult, try bending your knees slightly and adding a small rolled-up towel under your lower back)
Lower yourself as slowly as you can back into a lying-down position.
How many repetitions should I do?
For an activity to be muscle strengthening, it needs to work your muscles to the point where you may need a short rest before continuing. A good starting point is to count how many you can do in one minute without resting.
If you can’t do at least five repetitions, the exercise might be too hard for you. If you can very easily make more than thirty repetitions, then the exercise might be too easy for you.
And how often?
As you progress in your strength training journey, your ultimate goal will be to meet the NHS recommendations, which are to do three rounds of two exercises for all the biggest muscles in your body at least twice a week.
An easy way to remember this is that twice a week on non-consecutive days, you’ll want to do:
- Six rounds of leg exercise
- Twelve rounds of upper body exercises
To get an idea of what a full-body routine might look like, here is a helpful resource from the NHS.
However, if that sounds like a lot to you and you are not currently doing any kind of strength training, we don’t suggest diving directly into that full recommendation.
Instead, keep working along with the Five Lives Digital Coach, where we’ll take you through how to slowly, easily and safely progress from where you are now to a fitter, healthier you who is following the science-backed recommendations that will protect your brain long term.
Uncover A New You And Download Our App Today!
Our app is designed to help you check your brain health and improve vital lifestyle factors such as your physical activity level.
We’ll coach you step-by-step in the five pillars of brain health: sleep, nutrition, mood and social, physical activity, and mental stimulation, to ensure you’re doing the most to protect your brain long-term - for yourself and for your loved ones.