We all know the amazing results that regular exercise delivers for major health concerns like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
But recently, scientists are discovering a bevy of other benefits, too. Below is a sampling.
The 19th century philosopher Kierkegarrd may have had it right when he wrote: “Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness.”
Connectivity within brain circuits tends to diminish as we get older, which means that all types of brain work, from the reflexes we need for car driving to remembering our multiplication tables, can get slower, more difficult.
But walking just 40 minutes three times a week, researchers from the University of Illinois recently found, improved brain circuitry among people ages 59 to 80 so much that their brains resembled those of 20- to 30 year-olds, whose brains were tested for comparison.
The results, measured by MRIs, did not happen overnight. The benefits for the older walkers were observed only after one year. Six-month data yielded no significant trends.
But the returns were certainly worth the wait. Higher brain connectivity, explained lead author and psychology professor Art Kramer, PhD, means better performance on a vast range of cognitive tasks, “especially the ones we call executive control tasks – things like planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, working memory and multitasking.”
Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, published online August 26, 2010.
In late adulthood, brain size tends to shrink, which can cause memory problems, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s. But new research from the University of Pittsburgh, which followed for nine years nearly 300 Americans, average age 78, found that walking at least six miles a week maintained greater gray matter volume and cut the risk of cognitive impairment in half.
Neurology, online October 13, 2010.
A newly published study from Northwestern University followed sedentary women age 55 and older who had insomnia. Half were put on a 16-week aerobics program using treadmills and/or stationary bicycles. The other half remained sedentary.
Among the exercisers, sleep quality improved significantly. Poor sleepers became good sleepers. What’s more, the exercisers reported happier daylight time – better moods, fewer feelings of depression and anxiety, and enhanced vitality.
Aerobic physical activity, concluded the authors, “is an effective treatment approach to improve sleep quality, mood, and quality of life in older adults with chronic insomnia.”
Sleep Medicine, 2010; 11: 934.
In a 10-year, NIH-AARP study of more than 200,000 middle-aged and older Americans, all free of Parkinson’s disease when the study began, researchers found that regular exercise appeared to stave off the disease. People who worked out moderately or vigorously about seven hours weekly while in their thirties or later years were up to 40% less likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease by the study’s end compared to those who rarely exercised, or exercised only in their teens or twenties.
Neurology, 2010; 75: 341.
If you or a loved one has Parkinson’s disease, intriguing new data reported at the American Academy of Neurology meeting earlier this year found that patients in a 12-week program playing Nintendo Wii exercise video games experienced fewer symptoms like stiff movements and muscle rigidity. The Wii games, unlike most video games, get you off the couch and moving around with big steps and arm swinging.
In a 16-week walking program for previously inactive, overweight women who were nearing menopause or newly menopausal, researchers found that the walking not only helped them lose weight, it helped them feel better – less stressed, more energetic, happier. That’s no small benefit for women trudging through emotional and physical challenges during their menopausal years.
Breaking up the 45 minutes into shorter jaunts would yield similar benefits, pointed out lead researcher Dr. Pascale Mauriege of Laval University in Quebec.
Menopause, 2010; 17 (3): 529.
In a study of more than 1,000 adults, U.S. researchers found that those who exercised at least five times a week had 43% fewer colds over a 12-week period than those who were sedentary.
The scientists explained that exercise workouts trigger a temporary rise in immune system cells, which probably bolsters our body’s on-going battle against harmful bacteria, viruses, and other organisms, leading to fewer and less severe infections.
British Journal of Sports Medicine, published online November 1, 2010.