Why Is Exercise in Aging Such a Big Deal?
Ever heard of neurogenesis or neuroplasticity? Neurogenesis is the word the neuroscientists use to describe a recently discovered capacity of the human brain which we can enhance.
Neurogenesis means that we grow new brain cells across the life span. That is correct, even Senior brains grow new brain cells every day, and the most important thing for neurogenesis you can do is.....exercise.
Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe how neurons form new connections when they are challenged by novel learning experiences. The more new connections we form the easier it is for our brains to reroute signals around trouble spots or perhaps even prevent them from happening, and the most important criteria for brain fitness like this is, you guessed it, exercise.
The good news is that this exercise does not have to involve heavy barbells and long periods of perspiration.
Many Seniors do lift weights, or involve themselves in programs like HIIT or high intensity interval training.
Take a look at what
88 year old Bill and 82 year old Pat do to prepare for traveling. When you click on that link, look about half way down the page for Bill and Pat.
I work out at my local YMCA with two guys who are both almost 90, and they call me young man and insult my sports allegiances almost every day.
Want to read an excellent guide to brain fitness that thouroughly explains exercise aging? I suggest
Brainfit for Life by Simon Evans,Ph.D. and Paul Burghardt,Ph.D, neuroscientists at the University of Michigan who are actually offering up this information so that readers can successfully age.
They make a distinction between activity and exercise, and encourage us to do either for optimum aging.
I know I feel better after my workout, and I have made it a point to do my prayers during my workout for many years. I am in an altered state from deep regular breathing, which is where prayers and meditation should take you, might as well combine the two.
Evans and Burghardt describe what they call the pillars of brain fitness, which are physical exercise, nutrition, including omega 3 fatty acid, good sleep, stress management, and novel learning experience as necessary for brain fitness.
This is from the National Institute on Aging,
"Regular exercise and physical activity are important to the physical and mental health of almost everyone, including older adults. Being physically active can help you continue to do the things you enjoy and stay independent as you age. Regular physical activity over long periods of time can produce long-term health benefits. That’s why health experts say that older adults should be active every day to maintain their health.
In addition, regular exercise and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that develop as people grow older. In some cases, exercise is an effective treatment for many chronic conditions. For example, studies show that people with arthritis, heart disease, or diabetes benefit from regular exercise. Exercise also helps people with high blood pressure, balance problems, or difficulty walking.
One of the great things about physical activity is that there are so many ways to be active. For example, you can be active in short spurts throughout the day, or you can set aside specific times of the day on specific days of the week to exercise. Many physical activities — such as brisk walking, raking leaves, or taking the stairs whenever you can — are free or low cost and do not require special equipment. You could also check out an exercise video from the library or use the fitness center at a local senior center."
OK, so we know that exercise can help prevent disease, what does exercise generate or create for us?
Exercise in aging means we get new neurons every day, which can do wonders for the memory, and can help us be like Jim Ward who participated in the Ironman triathalon at 74 or Attorney Jack Borden who practices law at 101 years of age.
(You want to make sure your new neurons are not ambushed at the pass by stress hormones, booze, poor nutrition, or environmental toxins).
Exercise is a key peice of the neuroplasticity puzzle too. Neuroplasticity is what neurons do when they are challenged by novel learning experiences, and
Evans and Burghardt say that happens within minutes, not hours, and those new connections are vital to our cognitive activities. If we do not form new connections and then keep them formed, the brain will pare them, that means delete them, which can leave me with not enough connections to handle emerging amyloid plaques now associated with alzheimers disease.
Novel learning experiences are usually characterized as the kind of learning I do when I learn a new language or I learn a new musical instrument, or it might involve the kind of learning that one gets from using computerized brain fitness programs like the Posit Science Brain Fitness program which was recently put to the research test in the IMPACT study of over 500 Seniors.
Both the researchers and the participants were very surprised by the impact of the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program on the daily life and tasks of over 500 Seniors.
So it is possible to take those new neurons generated daily and get them locked in to existing brain circuits by exercising and learning?
Those are only part of the requirements.
Besides exercise and novel learning challenges, we need to take care of nutrition including omega 3 fatty acid and stress management and sleep to maximize the exercise aging benefits.
Stress management and sleep can be enhanced by using the Heartmath tool which I have been teaching to Anger Management and Domestic Violence clients since 2001.
Heartmath is another tool based on new research, this time about the heart's own nervous system. Turns out the heart has a brain of its own, an affiliative and cooperative brain, which can learn and make decisions independently of any other brain I may have.
I can cue a wonderful relaxation and sleep response using the Heartmath process on any given heart beat, and open my brain's higher perceptual centers for novel learning experiences.
Is this exercise aging thing starting to sound very much like a positive feedback loop? Hope so.
Here are some links to powerful exercise aging tools for your brain, heart, and life.