Exercise for a good mind!

Regular physical activity is one of the most effective ways of warding off illness, and keeping our brains from shrinking!

MALAYSIANS are often blase whenever we are confronted with a query about how physically active we are. We are constantly cajoled by the media to exercise, but these exhortations always seem to be directed to someone younger.

The benefits of physical activity are well publicised. Since the Jack LaLanne fitness programmes on television in the early 1960’s, and Jim Fixx’s running/jogging revolution at the same time, people began to change their perception of what defines a good life. Fat was out, fit was “in”. However, we Malaysians have not embraced this willingly, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of obese young and middle-aged citizens.

It is easy for us to think that exercise only exerts its effects on our bodies from the neck down, but the same types of exercise benefit our brains too.

Now, there is growing evidence that physical activity is good not only for your heart, but for your brain as well. And in case you are in the 45-49 year age group, be aware that a recent study of over 7,000 civil servants (men and women) in the UK has shown that many domains (except vocabulary) indicating cognitive decline or memory decline was already evident in this “young” age group!

So it is never too early to preserve brain function to prevent the slippery slide to senility.

Physical activity helps your brain grow, no matter how old you are! The shrinkage of the hippocampus in the adult brain is strongly related to poorer memory. Recently, researchers have found that people walking more than 10-15km every week appear to increase the size of their brains.

The same researchers went on to do a further study that showed that the part of the brain associated with memory, the hippocampus, also grew in size with physical activity.

Dr Erickson and his colleagues recruited 60 adults aged 60 to 80 years who got 30 minutes or less of physical activity per week to begin a course of aerobic training that involved a programme of brisk walking. A similar number of sedentary adults served as a control group and were asked to do only stretching and toning exercises.

The people recruited were fairly inactive individuals. The researchers first started them walking 10 to 15 minutes at a time because they were not used to exercise, and eventually progressed to about 40 minutes a day for three days a week, and that lasted for a year.

The participants had some degree of brain shrinkage, although this had not yet progressed to a diagnosis of dementia, and were otherwise healthy, apart from the usual aches and pains typical of this age group.

Magnetic resonance images (MRIs) and memory tests were done serially.

At the end of one year, those in the aerobic exercise group showed improved memory function compared with their performance at the start of the study. This improvement was associated with the increased size of the hippocampus.

This is an important finding because Alzheimer’s disease is known to start in and target the hippocampus. Exercise appears to reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and is another good reason why everybody of all age groups, but especially the elderly, should engage in regular forms of physical activity.

So what if I choose to be physically inactive? There are three reasons why being a couch potato might not be so helpful in keeping your brain healthy.

  • Being inactive increases cardiovascular risk factors indirectly, leading to increased risk of developing memory decline.
  • C-reactive protein and other inflammatory markers in your blood will be lowered with regular physical activity.
  • Lastly, as noted above, physical activity seems to help generate nerve cell growth that will hopefully ward off the spectre of dementia and memory loss.

Sticking to a physical activity programme can be a challenge. Too hot, too humid, afternoon thunderstorms, working late, housework, second job, and not able to find something interesting to keep up the activity are some of the issues that we all face.

Of course, it is a choice we make when we decide to change our routine to a healthier one. And exercise is not like eating food. It will not kill you if you do not have it. The benefits are only seen later, possibly years later. The easiest aerobic exercise known to be of benefit is to take a “brisk” walk.

Walk for an hour, at your own gentle pace, to mark out a route through a nearby park or housing estate. Then take the same route daily, gradually increasing the pace and reducing the time that it takes to cover the course.

You will find that you can walk more briskly and complete the same route in half the time after several months of practice. If threadmills are your thing, then start with the slowest setting that you are comfortable with and gradually increase this so that you are walking more briskly after several months on the machine.

Other activities are beneficial (see activity pyramid), but it may be best to talk with your doctor before embarking on these as some exercises may be too vigorous and may lead to injury.

In conclusion, regular physical activity, despite all the new developments in drugs and food supplements, continue to show that it is one of the most effective ways of warding off illness, and keeping our brains from shrinking!

This article is contributed by The Star Health & Ageing Panel, which comprises a group of panellists who are not just opinion leaders in their respective fields of medical expertise, but have wide experience in medical health education for the public. The members of the panel include: Datuk Prof Dr Tan Hui Meng, consultant urologist; Dr Yap Piang Kian, consultant endocrinologist; Datuk Dr Azhari Rosman, consultant cardiologist; A/Prof Dr Philip Poi, consultant geriatrician; Dr Hew Fen Lee, consultant endocrinologist; Prof Dr Low Wah Yun, psychologist; Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist; Dr Lee Moon Keen, consultant neurologist; Dr Ting Hoon Chin, consultant dermatologist; Prof Khoo Ee Ming, primary care physician; Dr Ng Soo Chin, consultant haematologist.

For more information, e-mail The Star Health & Ageing Advisory Panel provides this information for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star Health & Ageing Advisory Panel disclaims any and all liability for injury or other damages that could result from use of the information obtained from this article.