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Brain or muscles, what do we lose first?

From the age of 50, the decline in physical and cognitive abilities is inevitable. However, these results indicate that, contrary to what was once thought, if we act first on our cognitive skills, we can slow the decline of this virtuous circle.

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Someone dies somewhere in the world every 10 seconds owing to physical inactivity – 3.2 million people a year according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). From the age of 50, there is a gradual decline not just in physical activity but also in cognitive abilities since the two are correlated. But which of them influences the other? Does physical activity impact on the brain or is it the other way around?

To answer this latter question, researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, and the NCCR Lives Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research used a database of over 100,000 people aged 50-90 whose physical and cognitive abilities were measured every two years for 12 years.

The findings, which are published in the journal Health Psychology, show that – contrary to what was previously thought – cognitive abilities ward off inactivity much more than physical activity prevents the decline in cognitive abilities. All of which means we need to prioritize exercising our brains.

The literature in this area has been looking at the impact of physical activity on cognitive skills for a number of years. “Correlations have been established between these two factors, particularly in terms of memory, but also regarding the growth and survival of new neurons,” begins Boris Cheval, a researcher at UNIGE’s Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA). “But we have never yet formally tested which comes first: does physical activity prevent a decline in cognitive skills or vice versa? That’s what we wanted to verify.”

What came first: the chicken or the egg?

Earlier studies based on the correlation between physical activity and cognitive skills postulated that the former prevent the decline of the latter. “But what if this research only told half the story? That’s what recent studies suggest, since they demonstrate that our brain is involved when it comes to engaging in physical activity,” continues the Geneva-based researcher.

The UNIGE researchers tested the two possible options formally using data from the SHARE survey (Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe), a European-wide socio-economic database covering over 25 countries. “The cognitive abilities and level of physical activity of 105,206 adults aged 50 to 90 were tested every two years over a 12-year period,” explains Matthieu Boisgontier, a researcher at the Lives Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR Lives). Cognitive abilities were measured using a verbal fluency test (naming as many animals as possible in 60 seconds) and a memory test (memorising 10 words and reciting them afterwards). Physical activity was measured on a scale of 1 (“Never”) to 4 (“More than once a week”).

The Geneva researchers employed this data in three separate statistical models. In the first, they looked at whether physical activity predicted the change in cognitive skills over time; in the second, whether cognitive skills predicted the change in physical activity; and in the third, they tested the two possibilities bidirectionally. “Thanks to a statistical index, we found that the second model adjusted the most precisely to the data of the participants,” says Cheval. The study demonstrates, therefore, that cognitive capacities mainly influence physical activity and not vice versa, as the literature to date had postulated. “Obviously, it’s a virtuous cycle, since physical activity also influences our cognitive capacities. But, in light of these new findings, it does so to a lesser extent,” points out Boisgontier.

Slowing down an inevitable decline

From the age of 50, the decline in physical and cognitive abilities is inevitable. However, these results indicate that, contrary to what was once thought, if we act first on our cognitive skills, we can slow the decline of this virtuous circle.

“This study backs up our theory that the brain has to make a real effort to get out of a sedentary lifestyle and that by working on cognitive capacities, physical activity will follow,” says Cheval by way of conclusion.

Fitness

Study finds moderate-vigorous physical activity is the most efficient at improving fitness

Dedicated exercise (moderate-vigorous physical activity) was the most efficient at improving fitness. Specifically, exercise was three times more efficient than walking alone and more than 14 times more efficient than reducing the time spent sedentary. Additionally, they found that the greater time spent exercising and higher steps/day could partially offset the negative effects of being sedentary in terms of physical fitness.

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In the largest study performed to date to understand the relationship between habitual physical activity and physical fitness, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) have found that higher amount of time spent performing exercise (moderate-vigorous physical activity) and low-moderate level activity (steps) and less time spent sedentary, translated to greater physical fitness.

“By establishing the relationship between different forms of habitual physical activity and detailed fitness measures, we hope that our study will provide important information that can ultimately be used to improve physical fitness and overall health across the life course,” explained corresponding author Matthew Nayor, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at BUSM.

He and his team studied approximately 2,000 participants from the community-based Framingham Heart Study who underwent comprehensive cardiopulmonary exercise tests (CPET) for the “gold standard” measurement of physical fitness. Physical fitness measurements were associated with physical activity data obtained through accelerometers (device that measures frequency and intensity of human movement) that were worn for one week around the time of CPET and approximately eight years earlier.

They found dedicated exercise (moderate-vigorous physical activity) was the most efficient at improving fitness. Specifically, exercise was three times more efficient than walking alone and more than 14 times more efficient than reducing the time spent sedentary. Additionally, they found that the greater time spent exercising and higher steps/day could partially offset the negative effects of being sedentary in terms of physical fitness.

According to the researchers, while the study was focused on the relationship of physical activity and fitness specifically (rather than any health-related outcomes), fitness has a powerful influence on health and is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and premature death. “Therefore, improved understanding of methods to improve fitness would be expected to have broad implications for improved health,” said Nayor, a cardiologist at Boston Medical Center.

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Fitness

Tips to avoid common running injuries

Injuries are very common among runners. Recent research estimates that 82% of runners will become injured during their running career and up to 90% will experience injury while training for a marathon. Some of the most common include a stress fracture, plantar fasciitis, hamstring tendinitis, ankle sprain, runners’ knee, and Achilles’ tendonitis.

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Whether training for a marathon or preparing for your first community race, being knocked off course with pain can be hard to handle mentally and physically.

Injuries are very common among runners. Recent research estimates that 82% of runners will become injured during their running career and up to 90% will experience injury while training for a marathon. Some of the most common include a stress fracture, plantar fasciitis, hamstring tendinitis, ankle sprain, runners’ knee, and Achilles’ tendonitis.

Injury prevention is critical. Here are some safety tips from Dr. Joshua Blomgren, a 15-time Chicago Marathon team physician and sports medicine physician, Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush:

Don’t over-train

Don’t increase weekly mileage or intensity by more than 10 percent each week. Build up slowly and let a good training schedule determine how much you run.

Invest in good shoes

Go to a specialty running shop to be properly fitted for running shoes and/or orthotics. Replace them every 350-500 miles. Incorrect shoes can affect your gait, leading to injuries in your feet, legs, knees, or hips.

Choose the best running surface

Look for running surfaces that absorb shock. Opt for asphalt over concrete. Find grass or dirt trails, especially for higher mileage. Avoid uneven surfaces and seek paths with slow curves.

Stretch!

Training causes tight muscles, leading to strain and changes in your gait. Commit to a stretching program. Just 5 -10 minutes after each workout can make a big difference.

Strengthen muscles

Runners have tight hip flexors because their quads are overtrained. Strengthen your hamstrings and glutes to reduce chance of injury and abductors, adductors, and core to create stability.

Watch out for heel striking

Heel striking occurs when your feet land in front of you and your heel hits the ground first. This is common among new runners but can lead to injuries such as shin splints, stress fractures, and joint pain. Land mid-sole with your foot directly underneath your body.

Prioritize posture

Good form means staying upright and keeping your shoulders back and relaxed. Work core exercises into your training and do posture checks every so often. Hold your head right above your shoulders and hips.

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Fitness

Postmenopausal women can dance their way to better health

After menopause, women are more likely to experience weight gain, overall/central body adiposity increases, and metabolic disturbances, such as increases in triglycerides and bad cholesterol. Together, these changes ultimately increase cardiovascular risk. Around this same time, women often are less physically active, which translates into reductions in lean mass and an increased risk of falls and fractures.

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Women often struggle with managing their weight and other health risk factors, such as high cholesterol, once they transition through menopause. A new study suggests that dancing may effectively lower cholesterol levels, improve fitness and body composition and in the process, improve self-esteem. Study results are published online today in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS).

After menopause, women are more likely to experience weight gain, overall/central body adiposity increases, and metabolic disturbances, such as increases in triglycerides and bad cholesterol. Together, these changes ultimately increase cardiovascular risk. Around this same time, women often are less physically active, which translates into reductions in lean mass and an increased risk of falls and fractures. As a result of all these changes, postmenopausal women often suffer from decreased self-image and self-esteem, which are directly related to overall mental health.

Physical activity has been shown to minimize some of the many health problems associated with menopause. The effect of dancing, specifically, has already been investigated with regard to how it improves body composition and functional fitness. Few studies, however, have investigated the effects of dance on body image, self-esteem, and physical fitness together in postmenopausal women.

This new study was designed to analyze the effects of dance practice on body composition, metabolic profile, functional fitness, and self-image/self-esteem in postmenopausal women. Although the sample size was small, the study suggested some credible benefits of a three-times-weekly dance regimen in improving not only the lipid profile and functional fitness of postmenopausal women but also self-image and self-esteem.

Dance therapy is seen as an attractive option because it is a pleasant activity with low associated costs and low risk of injury for its practitioners. Additional confirmed benefits of regular dancing include improvement in balance, postural control, gait, strength, and overall physical performance. All of these benefits may contribute to a woman’s ability to maintain an independent, high-quality lifestyle throughout her lifespan.

Study results are published in the article “Dance practice modifies functional fitness, lipid profile, and self-image in postmenopausal women.”

“This study highlights the feasibility of a simple intervention, such as a dance class three times weekly, for improving not only fitness and metabolic profile but also self-image and self-esteem in postmenopausal women. In addition to these benefits, women also probably enjoyed a sense of camaraderie from the shared experience of learning something new,” says Dr. Stephanie Faubion, NAMS medical director.

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