Why we need to exercise … and don’t need a lot of those other products on
I am so tired of television, magazine, and catalog ads selling brain improvement products — to seniors as well as to people my age. They are starting to arrive regularly in my mailbox, and TV is an ad wasteland. The sales pitches and advertisements are tiresome, taking advantage of the fear older people have about aging and getting sick. But the ads are also targeted at people in my demographic group (later middle age) as we help our aging parents while simultaneously pondering the ways we can avoid as many of their medical problems as possible.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy crossword puzzles, have fun with Sudoku, and listen aptly to the New York Times’ CrossWord Puzzle editor Will Shortz each Sunday morning on National Public Radio’s Sunday Puzzlemaker segment. Such puzzles and games give me immense pleasure and keep my mind working hard. However this type of activity is only one small piece of the brain health puzzle (no pun intended).
Exercise is perhaps the most significant puzzle piece (Mayo Clinic). Most physicians and researchers agree that exercise benefits the body. When a body moves, the brain is a happier and more productive organ. That happier brain helps us stay healthier, age more gently, and continue to be enthusiastic and efficient lifelong learners.
An amazing number of reports and books have been published, just in the past several years, telling us how exercise supports health and helps the brain stay healthy. They contain significant information for people my age and for people my parents’ age. Here are just a few resources that can be perused.
- Professor John Medina, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington, wrote Brain Rules in 2008 (now available in paperback), an entertaining book in which he discusses twelve important brain rules and especially the importance of movement on learning and working. Dr. Medina addresses the currently well-accepted concept of multi-tasking, which he says the brain doesn’t really do (making me worry when I listened to his book and exercised at the same time). Some entertaining video explanations are posted at his web site. You can also listen to his presentation at the Author’s @ Google series.
- Recently the New York Times Vital Signs blog reported that women who participated in a year’s worth of regular strength training demonstrated increased cognitive ability. The Times report was based on an article in the January 25, 2010, issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, Physical Activity at Midlife in Relation to Successful Survival in Women at age 70 or Older.
- Welcome to Your Brain (see my short book review ) authors, neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, penned a New York Times Op-Ed contribution in November 2008. Their most compelling comment? “One form of training … has been shown to maintain and improve brain health – physical exercise.”
- The WebMD fitness-exercise section features a long article, Train Your Brain With Exercise, by Jean Lawrence, explaining the brain’s response to exercise. In her article filled with brain experts’ thoughts, she quotes one author, Stephen C. Putman who calls exercise “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” As a committed garden person I love that metaphor.
- In his 2008 book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John J, Ratey, MD of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School explains how important exercise is to the brain, general health, and cognitive functioning. In his Authors @ Google presentation Dr. Ratey comments that our moving brain is also our learning brain. The person who recommended this book to me — I am listening to the audio version — reported that it did indeed create a spark, changing her view of the importance of physical activity in her life as well as in her 80-year-old mother’s life.
- A research report in the January 2006 Annals of Internal Medicine describes how 1740 seniors were followed for more than six years. Participants self-reported their exercise and diets. After a little more than six years, dementia, a disease of the brain, occurred at a lower rate among the group that reported more exercise suggesting an association between more exercise and lower dementia rates.
The multiple positive effects that exercise has on the brain sound almost like the promises made by those late 19th and early 20th century traveling salesmen who sold elixirs by saying that their product would solve any physical or mental problem. Except that today’s exercise elixir works, in many cases helping a person to become healthier, no matter where that individual begins on the exercise continuum. While exercise cannot solve every medical problem and cannot itself cure an illness, a more active lifestyle goes a long way toward ensuring better health.
Exercise can help our parents stay mentally sharp longer, even parents bogged down with chronic diseases — exactly what the puzzle books brain growth activities will not do.
And it can definitely help to build a brighter and healthier future for those of us who are aging children.
I think I’ll head off to exercise now.