Working out to fight ‘shrinkage’

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. 

By Cathleen Kronemer

Over the past two decades, many inroads have been made in the quest to slow the aging process.  Scientists had us convinced that the best way to guarantee mental acuity was to keep our brains stimulated.  I can vividly recall my grandparents playing Scrabble as often as their schedules would allow, in an effort to keep their minds sharp.  Crossword puzzles and Sudoku are some of today’s most popular choices for engaging the brain, the goal being to hold the devastating effects of dementia at bay.

While such mental activities may be associated with improved well-being and a higher quality of life, new research is leading us down a very different path. Studies now show that remaining physically active in our later years may actually help to protect parts of the brain from shrinking, which is the what ultimately leads to a decline in thinking and memory skills.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh followed 600 subjects, age 70 and older, for 3 years, tracking their daily physical, mental, and social activities.  At the end of the 3 years, brain imaging revealed less shrinkage and damage in the brain’s “communication systems” among those participants who engaged in regular physical activity as compared to their sedentary counterparts, even if they had been doing mind-stimulating projects.  The exercise was not necessarily strenuous or excessive; in most cases, it was merely walking several times a week. Dr. James Goodwin, head of research at Age UK, confirmed these findings with his own research, adding that even activities such as gardening, cooking and light cleaning may be enough to have a positive effect on the aging brain.

For those of us who truly enjoy the challenge of a brain-stimulating New York Times crossword puzzle, try taking a walk to the newsstand instead of driving. Give your brain a double dose of shrinkage prevention!