JAN 02, 2018 6:29 AM PST

Can Exercise Be a "Miracle Drug?"

It's the second day of the new year, and most gyms are probably still crowded with those who have resolved to work out more and get in better shape. That's never a poor choice.

Exercise is necessary to keep muscles from drooping, weight from skyrocketing and the cardiovascular system from becoming sluggish and inefficient. Along with a healthy diet, physical activity is the number one thing that anyone can do to improve their overall health.

The problem comes in trying to figure out what kind of exercise fits best into each person's life. Some prefer low impact workouts like swimming, yoga, and Pilates. Others want to get moving, to music or in a competitive sport and choose to run, take a Zumba class or compete in marathons or triathlons. New information suggests that to get the most benefit from exercise, it should be cardio. Any activity that gets the heart rate elevated for a sustained amount of time is what will have the best impact on general health and specifically cognitive health.

Cardiologists and general practitioners have been counseling patients for decades on getting enough exercise to manage conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Now that advice is being added to treatment information for neurologists. The American Academy of Neurology recently issued new guidelines that point to multiple research studies that show patients who have been diagnosed with mild cognitive decline, whether from Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, can benefit from exercising twice a week, as intensively as they are able. Aerobic exercise, in particular, was suggested, as more than one research study has shown that it can boost brain power and improve memory.

While some patients will have physical limitations that might prevent them from sweating it up in a rocking Jazzercise class or running for miles, it's still important to try. Getting the heart rate up for 45 minutes, three times a week, shows the most benefit, compared to less intense exercise like gentle stretches, some forms of yoga and walking at a slow pace. While any activity is better than none, when it's a workout that goes just a little above what a patient thinks they can do, the benefits increase. In an article in the Harvard Medical School Mind and Mood newsletter, the authors write, "Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress."

Ronald C. Petersen, MD, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN is the author of the guidelines recently issued by the AAN. In a statement, he explained,"It's exciting that exercise may help improve memory at this stage, as it's something most people can do and of course it has overall health benefits." In an article on the benefits of regular aerobic exercise, the benefits of getting a little out of breath are referred to as "the closest thing to a miracle drug that we have." While it's not a good idea to go from little to no activity to a hip-hop cardio class, starting in with workouts that boost your heart rate is an excellent first step. It's that time of year, so if you want to keep your brain (and the rest of you) healthier in the coming year, get on it.

The video below has some additional information.

Sources: Harvard Medical School, American Academy of Neurology, EurekAlert, AAAS

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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