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What Does the Aging Brain Need Most? Exercise!

“It keeps you thinking young!” says triathlete Paula Larsen, an NEA-Retired member, of her running, biking, swimming, hiking, and other exercise habits, which include even stand-up paddle boarding.

The quadriceps of a bicyclist, the calves of a runner: Athletes of any age often wear the proof of their practice. But new research has found the positive evidence of their exercise efforts—especially among aging adults—also exists inside their heads.

Larsen, a former physical education teacher from southeastern Wisconsin, may be absolutely right when she says, “We might be 70, but our brains are telling us we’re 40!”

In fact, older adults who hit the track, or spend an hour in the aerobics studio, can buy an extra decade of good brain functioning, according to a study published this spring in Neurology journal.

The study involved nearly 900 adults, who underwent cognitive tests at age 71 and then returned for the same tests five years later. Researchers found that those who regularly engaged in “moderate to intense” exercise, such as jogging or calisthenics experienced substantially less mental decline than those who reported light or no exercise. On tests of memory and processing speed, the more sedentary group showed the equivalent of an extra 10 years of aging.

In this study, “light exercise” included walking and yoga, which suggests to one of its authors that an evening stroll isn’t enough to preserve your brain power. “It seems like we’re not going to get off easy,” said Dr. Clinton Wright, a neurologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, to HealthNews. “There’s increasing evidence that it needs to be exercise that gets your heart rate up.”

But other studies have suggested that you don’t have to sweat for hours a day to realize brain benefits. At the University of Kansas last year, researchers recruited sedentary adults, all at least 65 years old and generally healthy, and divided them into groups whose new exercise regimens ranged from 75 to 225 minutes of brisk walking per week. Six months later, all had improved their thinking skills more than a couch-sitting control group, and it didn’t matter whether they had walked a little or a lot.

Pennsylvania retired teacher Mary Wills, and former Pennsylvania State Education Association director, laces up her custom Nikes, plugs in her personal playlist of songs, and packs her pockets with dog treats to prepare each morning for a brisk walk of three miles. “I do believe it makes me feel better every day,” she says. “To be honest, I don’t feel good if I don’t get my walk. I kind of feel guilty. It’s become part of my life.”

Walking, bicycling, tai chi, weight lifting, even gardening—“[Gardening] sure is exercise!” says Diana Benzing, 74, an NEA-Retired member and master gardener from Neola, Iowa. Just think about the bending, the lifting, the rolling up of all those hoses.… And, not only does it provide physical and mental benefits, she notes, “look at all the veggies you get to eat!” (See Page 37 for gardening tips from Benzing.)

The bottom line is this: If you want to stay sharp, it’s time to move. A whole lot of research shows that exercise “can help us achieve wellness in our bodies and brains as we age,” says gerontologist Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia.

Yoga and Brain Health

Days that include downward-facing dog and other yoga poses, have specific benefits to the aging brain, according to research. That is no surprise to 64-year-old NEA-Retired member Sandy Bielenberg of Durango, Colo., She teaches a form of yoga focused on keeping students’ bodies in proper alignment so they remain safe. Bielenberg’s oldest student will celebrate her 90th birthday this year.

“[Yoga] is all about focus and mindfulness, and really bringing attention to the body, the heart, and the mind,” says Bielenberg, a former elementary art teacher who has taught yoga for nearly a decade.

In a study published last year about the brain benefits of yoga, researchers asked adults aged 55 and up, all with mild cognitive issues, to either practice yoga and meditation or do more typical memory-training exercises. After three months, both groups had improved their verbal memory, but the yogis showed bigger advancements in visual-spatial memory, which is the type of memory used to recall locations or navigate while walking or driving. It is an aspect of cognition that often declines with age.

Other studies also have shown that just 20 minutes of yoga a day improves speed and accuracy on tests of memory and inhibitory control. The latter has to do with the ability to ignore distractions and focus on what’s important.

Bielenberg teaches four classes a week, including one called “Silver Yoga” for retirement-age students. She also recently attended an instructor-training class where the students were 92, 93, and 94 years old. “These were people from nursing homes, who had basically gone there to die, and then they found this community of yogis. They got out of their wheelchairs, put aside their walkers, and they’re happier.”

Being part of a community of yogis can be as critical to physical, emotional, and mental health as the actual practice of yoga poses, Bielenberg suggests. And research shows she’s right: Regular participation in social activities and the maintenance of social ties does slow cognitive impairment.

“I have a student who recently lost her husband and she said to me that she comes to yoga because she really likes the community and she doesn’t feel alone,” says Bielenberg. For many students, that yoga-class feeling of support, resilience, and calmness carries far beyond their 60 or 90 minutes together.

That is the way it’s supposed to be, says Bielenberg. “I always tell my people, ‘Take this off your mat and into the rest of your day,’ this feeling of mindfulness should go with you.”

For retirees interested in yoga, Bielenberg advises more gentle, less athletic classes, often offered at senior centers or private sports clubs with “silver sneaker” programs. “A lot of people hear the word yoga and think, ‘I can’t do that! It’s pretzel poses!’” says Bielenberg. “It’s key to find a teacher who can relate to older yogis, who can modify the poses for any body and their limitations, and focus on keeping people safe and strong and flexible and balanced.”

Race and the aging brain

Rose Meyers is 71, but she feels about 51, she says. “Running takes 20 years off your life!” she says. This spring, Meyers completed a half-marathon—that is 13.1 miles—in Niagara Falls, N.Y., plus a handful of 5K and 10K races in Arizona. She also runs at least three or four days a week on the smooth, concrete sidewalks of her over-65 community in Phoenix, Ariz.

Clearly Meyers’ physical and mental fitness is exceptional for a woman her age, but the retired Connecticut high school science teacher points out that she’s also atypical in another regard: She is usually the sole African-American in her running groups. “We have a big race in Phoenix with 30,000 people, and you can count the African-American men and women out there. And if you count by age group, it gets even smaller. In my group, you’ve got me!”

“We need to be more active,” Meyers urges her peers. “Instead of saying I’m going to do a little bingo, or visit my friends, just go for a walk. Even a little walk every day would help.”

Aging African-Americans often have lower levels of cognitive health, research shows, likely because they also have higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes—and all of those afflictions have been shown to adversely affect brain function. Indeed, a study last year of 26,000 older adults found that diabetes ages the brain about five years faster than normal.

A lifetime of racial discrimination also may matter: A 2015 study of African-American adults between the ages of 50 and 78 found that higher levels of reported discrimination was a significant predictor of cognitive decline. (Also linked to worse thinking skills: a perceived lack of good relations with adult children. So, call your kids!)

 Regardless of the reason, Meyers sees a solution. Get your body moving. “I see a lot of people my age getting sedentary,” she says. “They actually become old because their bodies are not moving.”

For new runners, Meyers recommends joining a running group like the one she embraced when she moved from wintry New England to sunny Arizona in 2008. “I was a walker and I figured I’d take it to the next level. It’s fun, and it’s free, and I don’t golf!” she says.

Her group, “Phoenix Fit,” provides coaches who gently guide their athletes along in mileage and pace, “Walk a little, run a little, and stretch a lot,” recalls Meyers. After six months of progressive improvements, Meyers ran her first half-marathon in three and a half hours. By last year, she had cut that time to two hours and 40 minutes.

Her strategy: “If I pace myself, I’ll cross the finish line!

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