Aging Gracefully Blog

Archive for the ‘Mind-Body Fitness’ Category

Miracle-Gro for the Brain

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Flex your mental muscle with exercise!  Physical fitness provides powerful protection against dementia and Alzheimer’s. While it is true that your brain changes as you grow older, cognitive decline is not inevitable with age. Studies examining exercise and brain health have clearly established links among physical activity, cardiovascular fitness, weight training, mental function and brain plasticity.  They have found that the dynamic nature of the brain is responsive to lifestyle, including whether and how you exercise.

Studies show that both aerobic exercise and strength training can beneficially change the structure of the brain and produce improvements in memory, while being inactive may lessen mental capacity. And here’s even more reason to get moving now:  Those who are most fit at midlife have a substantially lower risk of developing dementia later in life than those who are not physically active.

The brain retains plasticity, or the capacity to be reshaped, throughout our lifetimes, i.e. it continues to be able to change physically, functionally and chemically as long as we live. The more "plastic" the brain becomes, the more it can reorganize itself, modifying the number and strength of connections between nerve cells and different brain areas. Plasticity in the brain is important for learning, memory and motor skill coordination. 

Aerobic exercise jump-starts that process, cutting your lifetime risk of Alzheimer's in half and the risk of general dementia by 60 percent.  Even one 30-minute session of vigorous cardio activity has been shown improve the brain's plasticity. Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, triggering the release of a chemical (brain-derived neurotrophic factor also known as "Miracle-Gro for the brain") that stimulates activity in the hippocampus, the area involved in memory, learning and the ability to plan and make decisions.  It also repairs cell damage and strengthens synapses, which connect brain cells.

In general, older people require more of the brain's resources to complete the same tasks that young people do with less cognitive effort.  These are high-level mental tasks that require attention, problem-solving, and decision making.  However, the brain of an older person who is aerobically fit acts like a younger brain; much as a fit body is more efficient in performing the same physical task than one which is less fit.

As you pump up your muscles, you also pump up your brain volume.  Muscles, like brains, tend to shrink with age, affecting how you move.  One study looked at how changes in gait with aging could indicate declines in brain health. It found that after a year of twice-weekly light weight-training sessions, the participants had less shrinkage of the brain and walked more quickly than those who only trained once a week or just did stretching and balance twice a week.

So how much exercise should you aim for to keep your brain sharp?  Brisk walking for 20 or 25 minutes several times a week and light weight training twice a week have both been shown to be enough exercise to boost the brain.  For simple tips on at-home strength training exercises, please visit

(c) Copyright - Joan L. Pagano. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.




A Natural Mood Booster

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Aging Gracefully by Joan PaganoWhen you're down in the dumps, you may not feel like exercising, but maybe you should.  Studies show that even short bouts of exercise can boost your mood as effectively as medications, relieving anxiety and depression, and building resilience to stress in the future.

Changes in your brain are associated with depression and severe stress.  Low levels of certain chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin result in loss of brain nerve cells, contributing to feelings of sadness or emptiness, loss of interest in normal activities and ability to focus.

Antidepressants can raise the levels of brain chemicals to normalize them, but so does exercise.  As you work your heart and muscles, you release norepinephrine and serotonin into your blood stream and increase the levels in your brain.  By increasing circulation throughout the body, you also increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, making it perform better.

Working out can also reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  The link between chronic stress and the potential for mood disorders is well-established.

Long term stress can actually contribute to shrinking volume in the brain, while depression is associated with loss of brain nerve cells and reduced blood circulation in the brain.

Exercise triggers a number of chemical chain reactions that help reverse some of the biological effects of depression. It can help:

  • Stimulate new nerve cell growth
  • Improve the network of fibers to strengthen communication between nerve cells, enhancing brain function
  • Increase blood flow to fuel brain activity
  • Activate the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory
  • Break down kynurenine, a substance that accumulates in the muscles as a result of stress

How much exercise do you need to beat the blues?  Most studies on exercise and depression have involved structured programs of cardio and strength training.  The combination of the two may be better than just cardio training.

If you are just getting started, aim for accumulating 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio activity for five days of the week and strength training sessions twice a week.  Remember, you can get your cardio in doses of 10 or 15 minute sessions throughout the day. 

For more on building resilience, please check out previous posts:


Two Key Notes for Success: Set SMART Goals and Bounce Back with Resilience

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

If you want to fulfill the promises you make to yourself, consider using a tool like SMART goal setting combined with a spirit of resilience. Following an exhilarating week of special events in Cleveland, my mind keeps gravitating to these two themes that emerged, one from the Ideastream public radio pledge drive and the other from the Shaker Heights High School Alumni Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

During the Ideastream radio show, we spelled out the method of setting SMART goals. Experts in the field of self-improvement often recommend the SMART system, stating that your goals must be Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timed.  The SMART method applies to whatever goals you want to achieve, whether it's running a marathon, losing weight, finding a mate or moving up the corporate ladder.  And I'm proud to say that we walked the talk by meeting our fund-raising goal for the two-hour special! To see a specific example of how to set SMART goals for weight loss, revisit the blog post "Get Real Results with SMART Goals."

The other key note emerged from the personal stories of the inductees into the Shaker Heights High School Hall of Fame.  I was in the illustrious company of an astrophysicist, an ornithologist, and a film director, among others.  For some of us the path to our achievements was never a straight line, but a circuitous one that involved set backs and detours. Coping with road blocks and finding ways to move forward involves a resilient spirit.  You can see more about resilience in two of my recent posts, "Resilience:  Bouncing Back with Spirit" and "Seven Habits of Highly Resilient People."

A clear purpose and effective coping mechanism will allow you to follow your dreams. Keep your eye on your goal and be flexible to modify your plan if life intervenes. Your goals in exercise are a great opportunity to apply this type of thinking!

Joan Pagano (2nd from left) pictured with fellow Shaker Hall of Fame Inductees.


Seven Habits of Highly Resilient People

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

Resilience has been making headlines lately. It's a intriguing aspect of psychological fitness that impacts your physical fitness and health. Our last post highlighted new research showing that while partially innate, resilience can be learned. A recent article* in the Huffington Post identified seven habits of highly resilient people.

  1. Resilience is not about blind optimism. Resilient people allow themselves to experience both positive and negative emotions. While feeling sad about one thing, they remind themselves that they're grateful for another.
  2. It is about realistic optimism. They combine a positive outlook with critical thinking to create options on how to deal with challenges.
  3. They cope with rejection effectively. Since rejection and set-backs are inevitable in life, they adopt a mindset that maintains their self-esteem and confidence.
  4. They build strong support systems. Social support can boost resilience to stress.
  5. They notice and appreciate small joys and victories, to prevent feeling that "everything is going wrong."
  6. They seek opportunities for growth and learning which enhance their self-reliance and broaden their decision-making skills.
  7. They're endlessly grateful. Being thankful has a positive effect on mood and physical health.  The right attitude allows you to turn difficult experiences into learning lessons.

*As reported in the article "How to Bounce Back from Failure – Over and Over Again" by Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post, 9/2/13,