Senior Exercise (cont.)

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Does exercise help cognitive function?

One of the most exciting areas of exercise research is the investigation of cognitive function. What scientists have learned so far is that brain neurons, the special cells that help you think, move, perform all the bodily functions that keep you alive, and even help your memory, all increase in number after just a few days or weeks of regular activity. In a study where researchers used an MRI machine to measure the amount of brain tissue in adults 55 years of age and older, they found results, consistent with other studies of aging and brain volume, showing there were substantial declines in brain tissue density as a function of age in areas of the brain responsible for thinking and memory, but importantly, the losses in these areas were substantially reduced as a function of cardiovascular fitness. In other words, the fittest individuals had the most brain tissue.

How might fitness and more brain tissue help you? In another meta-analysis of older adults, researchers found that the fittest individuals had the highest scores on tasks like coordination, scheduling, planning, and memory. And in a recent study of 1,740 adults older than 65, researchers found that the incidence of dementia in individuals who walked three or more times per week was 35% lower than those individuals who walked less than three days per week.

Can exercise improve mood?

Research suggests that as many as 14% of males and 18% of females over age 55 are depressed. It has been documented, in younger adults, that exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression and even compete with the effects of antidepressant medication or psychotherapy in terms of effectiveness. Unfortunately, there is very little research on the effects of exercise and depression in older adults. What is fair to say is that exercise has a mood-elevating effect in most adults, whatever their age, even if it's not the cure for depression in the elderly. Talk to most anyone who exercises, no matter what their age, and they will report what used to be called a "feel-good" phenomenon after exercise. Whether it's from getting the heart beating or the blood pumping, from invigorating brain cells, or simply getting out in the fresh air, a good dose of exercise typically improves mood, and so I recommend it for virtually everyone.

How much exercise do I need to do for health and fitness?

The American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association recently published guidelines for physical activity in older adults. Here is a summary of the recommendations.

Aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, dancing, biking, swimming, etc.): To promote and maintain health, older adults need moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes  five days each week or vigorous intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 minutes three days each week. (Moderate intensity is when you feel "warm and slightly out of breath," and vigorous is when you feel "out of breath and sweaty.")

Resistance exercise (weight lifting, calisthenics): To promote and maintain health and physical independence, older adults will benefit from performing activities that maintain or increase muscular strength and endurance for a minimum of two days each week. It is recommended that eight to 10 exercises be performed on two or more nonconsecutive days per week using the major muscle groups.

Flexibility exercise: To maintain the flexibility necessary for regular physical activity and daily life, older adults should perform activities that maintain or increase flexibility at least two days each week for at least 10 minutes each day.

Balance exercise: To reduce risk of injury from falls, older adults with substantial risk of falls (those with frequent falls or mobility problems) should perform exercises that maintain or improve balance.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/24/2014


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