The year has once again rolled around to that time when we find the greatest joy in playing outside. Preparing the garden, mulching beds, mowing and all of the outside play that make living in East Texas so great is free for the doing. And while regular activity is frequently encouraged as a means of maintaining healthy weight, there are countless other benefits.
Recent research in neuroscience indicates that as people age, keeping the brain and body active becomes more important. Our brains like our bodies in general are far more likely to waste away from underuse than to wear down from overuse. This becomes more relevant given the unnatural nature of our sedentary modern lives. Think for a moment how many minutes a day you spend walking. Compared to our evolutionary ancestors, who walked everywhere every day, our few minutes between car and office are negligible.
It used to be thought that our brains are like fantastic machines that over time just wear out from use. New studies show that our brains are not hard wired like computers or electronic circuit boards but rather are constantly changing in response to what we actually do in the world. This means that rather than a static computer that eventually becomes overloaded and doesn’t function, our brains grow and adapt as we interact with our environment. Activity is a key to keeping our brains in shape as we age.
Research shows that people who consistently practice a few lifestyle measures such as healthy diet, maintaining normal weight, limiting alcohol to one glass of wine a day and avoiding smoking, reduce their risk for cognitive decline and dementia by 60%. But the practice with the greatest impact on reducing risk is regular daily walking.
If a new drug were released that could reduce risk of dementia by 60%, it would be the find of the century. Yet we have in our possession something less expensive and more effective. Even if we have genetic predisposition to senile dementia, how we live determines whether or not those genes are allowed to express themselves. One researcher puts it like this, “Environmental factors (such as routine activity) interact with our genes to allow or deny dementia to occur.” We can prevent these dementia genes from becoming active with daily walking.
Many studies show that exercise in midlife correlates with lower rates of dementia and that the lack of exercise corresponds to higher risk. So how does this work exactly? Exercise triggers the growth of new brain cells. It also stimulates the growth of neurotrophic growth factors, a kind of brain fertilizer helping the brain to grow and build new neuro-connections.
Physical exercise produces new brain cells in the memory system. Mental exercise preserves and strengthens existing connections. By working on projects, accomplishing goals and solving problems, we can actually build up a cognitive reserve that increases processing speed and mental sharpness. So take advantage of the warmer days to plan that new landscaping project, put in an herb garden, compost some leaves. If we involve the family we will be making more than just neuro-connections for the future. Let’s keep our brains healthy and happy.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.