Does Exercise Aid Brain Health?

The Debate’s Yet to be Decided

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 31, 2016

According to AARP’s latest health aging survey findings, age 40 and over respondents who regularly exercise rate their brain health significantly higher than non-exercisers. They also cite improvements in their memory, ability to: learn new things, managing stress, and even making decisions. On the other hand, the findings reveal an overwhelming majority of these respondents see the benefits of exercise, but only 34 percent are meeting the Global Council on Brain Health’s (GCBH) recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week.

These findings in the 37 page Survey on Physical Activity report, conducted by GfK for AARP, directly align with AARP’s Staying Sharp program, a digital platform that promotes brain health though holistic advice supported by science.

“With Staying Sharp, we sought to empower consumers with the tools needed to create a holistically brain healthy environment for themselves—along with a way to track and measure their progress,” said Craig Fontenot, VP of Value Creation. “The results of this survey only further validate the advice suggested on the platform and give us confidence that we’re providing our members with helpful, impactful information.”

The AARP survey findings, released on July 26, found that more than half (56 percent) of the age 40 and over respondents say that they get some form of exercise each week. However, only about a third (34 percent) of these individuals actually achieve the recommended 2 ½ hours of moderate to vigorous activity each week. There was little difference in reported amounts of exercise by age or gender.

The AARP online survey, with a represented sample of 1,530 Americans age 40 and over, found that walking is the most common form of physical exercise reported with 53 percent of the age 40 and respondents saying that they walk for exercise. A smaller percentage is engaging in more vigorous activity such as strength training/weight training (15 percent) or running/jogging (8 percent).

According to the survey’s findings, most of the age 40 and over respondents see the benefits to engaging in physical activity and do not find it particularly unpleasant or difficult. For example, three quarters believe exercise would improve their health, physical fitness, and quality of life.

Having willpower, enjoying exercise, identification as an “exerciser,” lack of enjoyment and feeling like you have the energy to exercise or lack money to exercise are the key factors that differentiate exercisers from non-exercisers, the researchers say.

The study found that the largest share of non-exercisers are “contemplators” in that they see the benefits and are considering taking up exercise (34 percent). About one-quarter (24 percent) are considered “non-believers” and see no need for exercise and were satisfied being sedentary. However, two in ten (19 percent) are “preparers” and say they have a firm plan to begin exercising in the near future.

Finally, the most common leisure activity that age 40 and over respondents would give up if they were to engage in exercise is watching TV/streaming movies (65%).

Removing the Barriers to Exercise

Colin Milner, CEO at the Vancouver, BC-based International Council on Active Aging, says, “These findings demonstrates the amazing and ongoing benefits of regular exercise. Our challenge, to get more people to actually move. By doing so the country and millions of individuals would improve their physical and mental health,” he notes.

Adds Milner, “The most important thing is to remember is that our bodies and brains were meant to be used. If we fail to do so they will cease to perform at the level we need or desire, and that is detrimental to our overall health and well-being.”

“Part of our challenge [to not exercising] is to remove the barriers that prevent us from leading an engaged life. A recommendation would be to list out the reasons you are not exercising or eating well, why you are feeling stressed or are not socially engaged, then set out to replace these with reasons to exercise and eat well, to be stress free and socially engaged. Once you have done this consider what steps you need to take to make this a reality,” he says. ICAA’s Webpage, “Welcome Back to Fitness” (http://icaa.cc/welcomeback.htm) gives the basics to help people begin exercising.

An avid squash player, Richard W. Besdine, MD, Professor of Medicine and Brown University’s Director, Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, preaches the importance of physical activity to all his colleagues and friends. “There are a large number of research studies documenting that exercise is good for all organs in your body,” he says, adding that that regular exercise can also reduce cancer rates, control diabetes, improve one’s emotional health and even reduce depression.

When asked about AARP’s survey findings about the impact of exercise and brain health, Besdine says he applauds the survey’s objectives of examining the relationship between physical exercise and brain health, but its findings are self-reported at best, not empirically derived.

Besdine points out that there is a growing body of studies that empirically study the relationship between exercise and brain health and findings indicate a positive impact on brain functioning. People who exercise are less likely to be cognitively impaired and those who are mildly impaired may even slow or stop the progression of their mental disorder, he says.

“Although AARP’s survey is very interesting it is very limited because it is self-report and cross-sectional, says Deborah Blacker, MD, ScD, Director of the Gerontology Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital who is also a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

AlzRisk, part of the AlzForum, a website that reports the latest scientific findings on the advancement of diagnostics and treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, posts a scientific review of 16 scientific articles reporting on the relationship of exercise habits to the later development of Alzheimer’s disease. Blacker, AlzRisk’s leader, says that this more solid body of evidence suggests that exercise may play a modest role in protecting a person from Alzheimer’s disease, but further scientific research is required.

Like Besdine, Blacker still sees the positive benefits of exercise even if the scientific data is still coming in. “We know that physical exercise is good for preventing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. If it may also help to prevent cognitive decline, for me that is an even better reason to exercise,” she says.

The Bottom Line

“Staying physically active is one of the best things that someone can do for their physical health and mental health. Physical activity can help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, prevent depression, and, especially for older adults, promote memory and help you think clearly,” said Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health. “We are working hard to make sure that people from every zip code throughout Rhode Island have access to our state’s wonderful parks, beaches, and other natural resources and are getting the amount of physical activity they need to live long, full, productive lives.”

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Tips on Finding an Age-Friendly Fitness Center

    Published on November 16, 2012, Pawtucket Times

           With the cold frigid weather approaching, that 30 minute daily walk around the block may well fall by the wayside in the winter months. While this activity is just what the doctor ordered to help keep you physically fit and feeling good, many aging baby boomers and seniors ‘look inward’ by turning to a local gym, by bringing their regular exercise indoors.

Seeking that Perfect Age-Friendly Fitness Center

            According to the Vancouver, British Columbia-based International Council on Active Aging (ICAA),aging baby boomers and seniors are joining health and wellness facilities faster than any other age group today, however many of these facilities are ill-prepared or not equipped to serve those in their later years.

While older “adult-focused” small gyms like ‘Nifty After Fifty’ are available, “even the large 24 Hour Fitness chains seek to attract older adults”, says Patricia Ryan, ICAA’s Vice-President of Education, noting that “over 70 percent of YMCAs had older adult programs according to a stat cited in ICAA Active Aging in America, Industry Outlook 2010.

Ryan recommends that when shopping around for a fitness center that caters to older baby boomers and seniors, always compare and contrast information gathered, using the following checklists, created by ICAA, to identify age-friendly fitness center.

            Become a savvy shopper when touring your local fitness center, by making sure it gears its amenities and organizational philosophies towards your needs – those age fifty-something and beyond.  ICAA, the world’s largest senior fitness association, has created a check list to help older persons to rate and compare local fitness facilities so they can choose one that meets their age-specific needs.

Some specific questions to consider can ultimately ensure that the center you choose meets your specific physical needs:

  1. Are the locker rooms clean, accessible and monitored by staff?
  2. Do you feel comfortable in the atmosphere of the facility?
  3. Are the membership contracts and marketing materials available in large print?
  4. Are signs visible and easy to understand?
  5. Does the facility’s cardiovascular equipment have the following age-friendly features – a display panel that is easy to read, easy to change and easy to understand?
  6. Is the music acceptable and set at a reasonable level?
  7. Do the facility’s treadmills start slowly, at 0.5 mph?
  8. Do the recumbent bikes or steppers have a wide and comfortable seat with armrests?
  9. Does the facility’s strength-building equipment have instructional placards that have simple diagrams, easy-to read text and font, and correct usage information.
  10. Does the facility’s strength-building equipment have a low starting resistance, less than five pounds?
  11. Does the facility offer programs designed to meet the needs of those with a variety of chronic conditions (specifically osteoporosis, cardiovascular, disease, diabetes, balance abnormalities, muscular weakness)?
  12.  Do the group exercise classes have different levels of intensity, duration and size?
  13.  Is there an extensive screening and assessment process (for balance, functional   abilities, osteoporosis)?’
  14.  Is the staff certified by a nationally recognized organization to work with people who have various health issues that may arise with age (specifically osteoporosis, hypertension, arthritis)?
  15. Is the staff knowledgeable about the impact that medication can have on exercise?

To download the complete checklist, visit the ICAA website,  www.icaa.cc/checklist.htm.

Getting Healthy, Building Closer Relationships   

It’s no secret to Maureen Wilcox, 45, of the need to cater to an aging population.  Wilcox,  a certified Personal Trainer at the Attleboro YMCA located across from the City’s Public Library on South Main Street in Attleboro, MA estimates that 30 percent of the nonprofit group’s membership is age 50 and over.  Many of these members are seeking advice on how to better manage or prevent age-related health concerns, the most common being: arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiac health and obesity.

Wilcox notes that this large constituency finds value in the Attleboro YMCA’s wide variety of programs that are geared towards baby-boomers and seniors.  These programs include resistance and strength training, aqua classes, Zumba classes, chair exercises, yoga and Tai Chi. “These classes will help you to manage a healthy body weight, stimulate your immune system, increase strength, improve posture, increase your flexibility and balance and help prevent chronic illnesses”, she adds. 

             According to Wilcox, a fitness center can also be a place to build friendships among older persons.  “A supportive community can enhance camaraderie among the participants, keeping them motivated and committed to meeting their exercise goals,” she says, adding that commitment to an exercise regime may well be more important than pushing weights around..

Over the years working, Wilcox has seen many new members in their later years forge new friendships at the Attleboro YMCA.  “Seeing people regularly allows them to develop meaningful relationships where they ultimately become an extended family,” she says.

“Relationships developed by participating in exercise classes also builds a small community among the senior age group members,” Wilcox notes, adding that they often participate in social trips and group outings outside of the Attleboro YMCA.  She notes, some seniors while exercising on their stationary bikes, read a big print book, To Kill Mocking Bird, adding health and wellness to an already established community literacy initiative.

Finally, in addition to personal training, various group exercise classes, including a running club,  LIVESTRONG is also offered at the Attleboro YMCA, says Wilcox.  It’s a free 12-week personal training program that provides a place where cancer survivors can come together.   Along with specially-trained staff to safely work in small groups,  participating members receive one-to-one attention while working toward maintaining or regaining their independence, everyday fitness, and overall health & wellness.  These participants share a bond that only cancer survivors can relate to.  “This is an inspirational program and one which we are all proud to be a part of,” prides Wilcox.

Getting to the Bottom Line

             Outdoor walking or the gym? That depends on personal preference and time availability.  “Brisk walking is beneficial, emphasizing ‘brisk,’ “says ICAA’s Ryan. “Faster walking to increase intensity has been reported in several studies in ICAA Research Review, to enhance your health, rather than the frequency,” she noted.

In addition, Ryan adds that scheduled classes in a fitness center help a person plan physical activity into their days and there should be equipment and classes for variety. There is expertise available in many (but not all) cases, especially in gyms targeting older adults and medically integrated fitness centers, a.k.a hospital wellness programs. There is recognition among most fitness clubs that older adults are not only a huge population to attract, but also a very good customer because of expendable income, she says.

“Exercise plays a vital role in healthy aging,” says Michael Fine, MD, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health.  “Regular exercise is an important weapon in the battle against chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.  Exercise also helps us maintain flexibility, balance and mobility.  It isn’t necessary to join a gym or buy expensive equipment; a brisk walk around the block is a great place to start if you’ve been sedentary. The key is to find an activity you enjoy and to make time for it each day.”

Ryan strongly agrees with Dr. Fine. “The most important message for those late in life is to MOVE, and to add physical activity into each day.  Physical activity is the magic pill. Whether walking, raking and hauling leaves, playing soccer or even going to a fitness club, it’s the right thing to do for healthy aging.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12,  is a Pawtucket-free lance writer who covers aging, medical and health care issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.