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Working on a Healthy Body Can Also Help Your Brain

No one can argue that physical exercise is important for the health of your body, but evidently it also keeps your brain sharp. Two new studies were presented at the 2011 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris that added to the growing body of research suggesting that exercise can help protect your brain against mental decline that occurs with aging.

Physical exercise in general increases blood flow to all cells, tissues and organs, and allows for more oxygen to make its way to the brain—great for brain health and function. Exercise has also been found to stimulate the formation of new neuronal connections responsible for learning and quick thinking.

Another unexpected benefit of exercise is an immediate antidepressant-like effect following exercise. The hormones responsible were also linked with an increase in the size of an area of the brain that is associated with learning and memory called the cell growth, particularly in the hippocampus.

For the best overall health benefit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity (like brisk walking 20 minutes a day) or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity (such as running), preferably spread throughout the week.

One study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia found that even a brief 20-minute session of exercise can immediately increase information processing and memory functions. In addition, research published in the Journal of Neurology found that walking about six miles a week may keep your brain sharp as you get older. Researchers from the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference found that a brisk 30-minute daily walk can delay mental aging by five to seven years.

To get the most brain-specific benefit from exercise, Wyoming Health Fairs exercise physiologist and author of a new book called “4 Weeks to Fabulous Challenge,” Alice Burron, MS, suggests the following tips:

Look for an activity that incorporates coordination with cardiovascular exercise, such as water aerobics or a dance class like Zumba® or Zumba Gold®. These types of coordinated exercises have been associated with the most mental function benefit.

If you like to lift weights, try circuit training workouts, in which 8 to 10 exercises targeting different muscle groups are completed one right after another with little or no rest taken between exercises. Perform each exercise for a specified number of repetitions or length of time (ex. 10-12 repetitions or 1 minute). The total number of circuits depends on how many exercises you chose, and how much time you want to work out. The double-benefit of circuit training is that it strengthens muscles and works your cardiovascular system by increasing your heart rate.

Exercise in the morning before going to work or performing a thought-provoking task so that you can take advantage of your increased mental function. It also will keep your stress levels under better control.

If you enjoy walking, try incorporating walking poles into your walk for an extra upper-body workout and increased brain benefit.

Remember to always check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program.

Gray Matters

Exercise with Wyoming Health Fairs exercise physiologist Alice Burron and get tips from other experts on the importance of food, fitness and fun on the brain at Gray Matters: Training the Grownup Brain from noon to 4 pm, Thursday, Sept. 29 at the Ramada Plaza Riverside in Casper. A “mind-full” lunch will be served at the free workshop, but reservations are required. Call AARP Wyoming toll-free at 1-866-663-3290 to reserve your seat.

Can’t attend the workshop?

Wyoming PBS aired a TV special based on the first AARP Wyoming Gray Matters workshop held in Cheyenne last year. Watch the video online.

The plan for the ADRC also calls for outreach through the state’s service providing agencies via a system of VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phones that clients could use to speak to and see the ADRC’s intake staff. Walter said that’s likely to come later; the VOIP phones cost $500 each.

Another piece under development, Walter said, is a searchable informational Web site. When it’s up and running, she added, it will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Because Wyoming is a large, sparsely populated state, not all services are available in every community. Center staff strives to make the most efficient use of their clients’ time, she said. “We might not be able to offer a local resource, but it will be the closest resource.”

One of the key resources that center staff has at its command is a database of all service providers – more than 7,000 federal and state agencies – that can provide some help and support. Work is now under way to complete that database using the same software that other agencies use to ensure easy access.

A pilot ADRC project in Natrona and Converse counties for residents of those counties closed its doors on April 1, 2009. But since the statewide initiative opened its virtual doors on March 14, more than 600 people from across Wyoming have called looking for help and information through mid-June, the most recent period for which information is available, Walter said.

The project is staffed by Southwest Wyoming Recovery Access Programs, which was one of three organizations that responded to the Health Department’s request for proposals. SW WRAP staff answers calls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Callers can leave a message at other times and will get a call back on the next working day.

Walter said the program is also partnering with Wyoming 211, a free and confidential referral system in Wyoming for health and human services information that launched in February. Calls received through that program will be routed to ADRC staff.

Walter said her 500-page report was worth the effort she put into it. Funding for the third year of the cycle depends on that report, which focused on the program’s sustainability. The only thing missing, she was told, was a pair of timelines. But overall, it was such a success that the Administration on Aging may require other states to include some of the same information, she said.

The Wyoming Aging and Disabilities Resource Center can be reached at 1-877-435-7851.

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