Aging Gracefully Blog

Posts Tagged ‘mind-body exercise’

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:


Get in the Habit of Exercise to Overcome Weak Willpower

Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Which is stronger:  habit or willpower? A new study suggests that habits may be more important than willpower in the effort to change. This is great news for those of us who feel our willpower is liable to flag under pressures and temptations. Habits persist even when we're at low energy and weak self-control.

As reported in the IDEA Fitness Journal (September 2013), scientists at the University of Southern California conducted five studies to examine whether habits could improve or undermine goal achievement. They found that people tend to default to a habit when they lack the mental capability to make a choice, for example if they are deliberating about whether or not to exercise. If the habit of exercise is part of your normal routine, then you default to doing it.

This applies equally to unhealthy habits:  If your tendency is to eat junk food, you'll revert to this behavior when stressed or tired.

Over the last 25 years of my career, numerous people who are in the habit of exercise have told me that they can't live without it. Both the mind and the body become attuned to the myriad of benefits that an exercise routine delivers and feel out of sync if it is interrupted.

Consistency is more important than intensity. Each day you should eat and exercise in such a way today that you can face doing it again tomorrow. This is how to gradually establish healthy habits that will serve you throughout life and that you will revert to when life becomes hectic.

To learn more about the study, go to!/article/51501/51501/


Success Stories: Dr. Alvin Drops 51 Pounds!!

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

As we've been reporting in this column, Dr. Alvin has been steadily losing weight since we started working together virtually in late Jan.  I've never met Alvin in person, but we speak once a week to review his exercise/eating plan.  He keeps a detailed chart of his daily workouts and menu plans, as well as his weekly weigh-in.

Today we celebrated his success in losing the first 50 pounds – 50 more to go!  He told me that this has been the best thing he's ever done in terms of discipline and evaluating things,  that he's now looking at the totality of his whole life and sees that it's changing before him.  In these past five months, he's been the most proud of who he is as a person. In fact, these five months have been the best five months of his life!

It's thrilling to me to be a small part of his success.  Of course he's done all the hard work that it takes to achieve his goals.  My thrill comes both from his accomplishment and from the remarkable effect it is having on his mental disposition.  Healthy body, healthy mind!!


Mental Muscle: Strength Training for the Mind

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

What is it that makes some people have the resolve to eat right and exercise, while others are continually challenged?  Is it a personality characteristic or can we train ourselves by developing the right mind-set?

I like to think that we can strengthen our resolve with mental training.  We are able to develop a hardy attitude and perseverance to overcome obstacles and take on new challenges.  When we are using our mental muscle, we don't allow fatigue, inconvenience or apathy to discourage us from achieving our goals. 

The New Year is the traditional time to take stock and re-evaluate.  Compare your level of physical fitness to where you were a year ago at this time.  How are you doing?  Have you been able to maintain your weight or have the pounds been creeping up?  Do you have the same stamina and energy you had or is the couch looking more inviting?  When you wake up in the morning, do you spring out of bed or do you have to slowly ease the stiffness out of your body?

 I'm so proud of my husband's resolve to lose weight.  He's lost 23#'s since last July and he lost it very gradually simply by giving up desserts and continuing his normal exercise routine of running and performing calisthenics (push-ups, planks, and crunches).   He knew that desserts were a weakness of his and if he even had one bite, he would eat the whole thing.  So he went cold turkey – walked away from the table when desserts were served at Thanksgiving dinner, politely refused to taste a home made truffle his friend had made and did not indulge in our sister's incredible gourmet desserts at Christmas.

Think ahead:  how will you feel in a month if you continue your present habits?  Exercise your mental muscle to stay rested, eat one less dessert or one less bite, and take an extra 2000 steps every day, even if it's indoors at the mall.

Have a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year!!

Running through My Mind

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Running has always helped me go forward, literally and figuratively.  When I started running years ago little did I know that it was just the first step on a path that was unfolding before me, one that would lead to more personal growth and a blossoming career.

A sound body and a sound mind go hand in hand.  I've been in training this past month in more ways than one. While I've been participating in a training course to prepare me to be media-ready, I've simultaneously been training my body to look and feel my best.  Next week is the big event, the National Publicity Summit, where I'll have the opportunity to meet major TV and radio producers and journalists.  I need to look good and have the stamina to stay sharp on demand for three long days. 

Being fit translates to other areas of life.  A positive body image gives us confidence, builds self-esteem and makes us attractive to others.  I'm proud of myself for sticking with my program and being ready for the race!