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Dr Duncan

Hands up all of you who haven’t heard that being physically active is good for you!

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Hands up all of you who haven’t heard that being physically active is good for you!  Well, both of you bring your books with you and come and sit at the front of the class!

Surely there can’t be many people with their senses still intact who haven’t heard of the benefits of being physically active?  Maybe there are still some who have yet to discover that being active on a daily basis also helps reduce the risks of certain cancers too; and perhaps others might not have heard that exercise is one of the really positive things that those who suffer from mood disorders such as depression can do to help alleviate their sufferings.

But I think we do ourselves a disservice by limiting the benefits of exercise to just reducing the risks of heart disease, cancer and depression.  Physical activity has a global effect on the body, and if performed in an appropriate, tailored way will always be good for the individual at whatever level they may be in their lives and with whatever level of ability they may have.

According to J. Eric Ahlskog, MD, PhD(1), neurologist at the Mayo Clinic and professor of neurology at the Mayo Medical School, Rochester, Minnesota, physical activity – or the raising of the heart rate and increasing the need for oxygen that exercise entails – may also reduce the risk of dementia and slow cognitive decline once it starts. He came to this conclusion after going through hundreds of research papers that have been written on the subject and analysing 130 particular ones that bore directly on the issue.

So what level of activity is required? Nothing is certain at this stage but it looks like the answer may be that any activity that raises the heart rate to 60% of the maximum* and done for about 150 minutes per week is beneficial. That’s very similar to that suggested by the Heart Foundation both here in Australia and in the USA.  What he found is that the benefits of such activity are:

  • reduced subsequent risks for dementia and mild cognitive impairment,
  • improved scores on cognitive testing in both normal seniors and those with cognitive impairment,
  • better maintained brain connectivity, measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging, and
  • increased volumes of both brain cortex and hippocampus (a crucial memory area).
* The maximum heart rate is based on age: for a 65yr old the recommended range for physical activity is between 85 and 131

As we get older, our ability to exercise can be limited by arthritis, lung and heart problems as well as by visual and other degenerative challenges too: luckily here in Australia, many gymnasiums are equipped for those with special needs, and for most people a suitable exercise program can be arranged. But one shouldn’t forget “normal” activities like sweeping up, walking the dog and gardening, which are well established methods of helping keep fit.

But as well as helping ward off the effects of dementia in later life, exercise may also help in the teenage years, and this time against one of the scourges of the 20th century – smoking!

According to researchers from West Virginia(2) as reported in the September online issue of Paediatrics: “Studies of adult smokers have suggested that enhanced physical activity during attempts to quit may decrease withdrawal symptoms and cigarette cravings." So they designed a program for teenagers who smoked, and found at both the 3 months and 6 months review stage that those in the exercise arm of the review had a much higher “quit rate.” The authors concluded, "Adding physical activity to a youth smoking-cessation program may enhance cessation success, particularly among boys … decreasing their risk by almost fourfold by the end of the program."

The beauty of all these additional research findings is that it reinforces the fact that physical activity should be a habitual part of our daily routine, so that we can maximize our health and reduce the risks of serious disease. It shouldn’t be something that we watch others do: it shouldn’t be something that we wisely acknowledge that “Joe Blow” should be doing because he or she has had a heart attack: and it shouldn’t be something beyond our abilities because that is not even an excuse! I know people in wheelchairs who go sailing: who do marathons in their chairs and to whom swimming is a real pleasure. Physical activity is for the blind, the arthritic, the diabetic, the stroke sufferer, the osteoporotic …. The list is endless, because the opportunities for exercise for everyone on the planet are endless.

(1)Mayo Clinic Proceedings
(2)Kimberly Horn, EdD, from the Translational Tobacco Reduction Research Program, West Virginia Prevention Research Center; Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center; and West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown

Article written by Dr. Duncan Jefferson. More articles here. For more information on health care and private health cover, visit HBF Insurance at www.hbf.com.au.

The content of these articles is not tailored for any particular individual's circumstances. The author does not take into account your physical condition, medical history or any medication you may be taking. Any advice or information provided by the author cannot replace the advice of your health care professional. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of HBF unless clearly indicated.

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