Fight Alzheimer’s train your brain

Aerobic exercise — walking, swimming, biking, running, anything that gets your heart rate up and keeps it there for at least 30 minutes — keeps your thinking sharp and reduces your lifetime risk of Alzheimer’s disease by half.

This bold statement of hope comes from John Medina associate professor of bioengineering at the University Of Washington, School Of Medicine. The reasoning behind this statement is that exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, stimulating the release of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates the formation of new brain cells in the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for memory, learning, planning and decision-making. BDNF also helps repair cell damage and strengthens the connections between brain cells.

Exercise also helps alleviate stress, reduces the risk of stroke, helps control blood sugar and reduces the risk of falling by improving balance, coordination and flexibility.

So, is it too late for you? Dr. Laura DeFina, the medical director at the Cooper Institute and lead researcher of aging and exercise coordination, says it is never too late in life to start an exercise program and reap the benefits!

Researchers at the University of Illinois found that 60- to 79-year-old seniors who completed a six-month brisk walking program showed an increase in the size of their hippocampus, as well as a significant increase in their BDNF levels. Researchers from that study said they proved that taking up exercise at any age, even someone who has never exercised before, can have a dramatic effects on brain physiology and chemistry.  

So here are some ideas on how to get started, if this is new to you. Check with your healthcare provider to make sure that you have the go-ahead and that you and they are aware of any trouble spots in your health. If you work with a trainer, let them know about any concerns that you have. A good trainer will ask. Then find an activity that you love, or ask the trainer about fun options.

Social opportunities abound. Get a friend to come with you on walks or to dances. Put your workout clothes out the night before so as to remind yourself to get up and get going in the morning. Use fun music. There are many studies that show that working out to your favorite tunes increases the amount of exercise that you do by helping you exercise longer and harder.

So how much is enough? The World Health Organization recommends older people get at least 150 minutes of cardio exercise per week. Sound like a lot? It is only 2.5 hours a week, or 20 minutes a day. They also recommend doing cardio every day to maximize the benefits.

A Canadian study demonstrated that seniors who walked, gardened, keep house by cleaning and cooking, and shopped, showed no decline in their ability to think or remember over the course of the five-year study. Exercise is pivotal.

How hard? You want to exercise at a rate that gets your heart pumping a little, but not at a rate that is too high so that you can’t catch your breath. This usually turns out to be around 6 to 7 on a scale of 10 for perceived exertion. So you should be able to talk, but not have enough breath to sing. This is a great level of exertion to sustain for at least 20 minutes daily to reap the benefits.

What about if your joints are sore? Pool work, riding a stationary bike, pilates and yoga put little strain on the joints but increase your heart rate and breath rate, and help improve core strength and balance. All good stuff for the aging (or any) body. Train your brain, and train with Jane.

• Jane Riley, M.S., B.A., C.P.T., Certified Nutritional Adviser, can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com, 212-1451 or www.janerileyfitness.com.

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