Active Body, Active Brain

Some things I would like to remember. Other things, not so much. The worst jobs I’ve ever had? I could forget those. Getting locked out of my apartment and having to crawl up a drainpipe at 2am? Yep, that can go too. An accident I had in my brand new car? Forget that. However, I want to always remember the first time I felt proud of my achievements and realized that was my new normal. I want to remember the smell of Spring flowers, and going to the beach. I want to remember some people.

Aerobic exercise can help. Getting-your-heart-rate-up-to-80%-of-capacity exercise. Studies done in 1990, according to the National Academy of Sciences, support the idea of exercise increasing brain function, specifically in the hippocampus, the memory center and possible stress regulator.

It isn’t just any exercise: it’s aerobic and for added impact, new and novel. Running a track or a set path isn’t the same as running an outdoor path, maybe in the hills, over uneven ground. The brain gets bored with repetition; it likes novelty. It likes to play. Having to solve problems along the way increases brain function. Running a repetitive track is predictable, although it does increase new neurons in the hippocampus. Even more are produced with novelty.

In addition, it changes the structure of the hippocampal volume and vasculature. Brain plasticity plays a part in this. The brain is always changing, based on the information it receives. If it produces more neurons and supporting dendrites, from aerobic exercise, that may impact the onset of Alzheimer’s, and depression, which seem to go together.

Lifestyle, genetics, and physiology factor in exercise effects, but people who move more have a fighting chance of delaying Alzheimer’s, maybe until after death. That’s when I would like to get Alzheimer’s or any dementia…after death!

That’s Aging Intelligently.

Change It Up and Move It

Aerobic activity not only increases our fitness; it also stimulates the improvement of mental health by generating structural changes in the brain. I did not make this up; it comes from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Cardiovascular activity (running, cycling, swimming) produces different changes in the brain and novel experience increases how the changes are made in relation to cognitive performance. Meaning, how well we think and process information.

The information suggests that physical activity makes different changes than the changes from learning something new (French for that trip next year) or doing a new activity (sailing a sailboat). Aerobic exercise has it’s own special reward for your brain. The standard thinking is moderate exercise for 30 minutes, 5 days a week, or more intense exercise for 20 minutes, 3 days a week. Or a combination of both. In addition, balance, agility, flexibility, and coordination need work. This is where we think we are aging because these abilities get worse as we age. In truth, we do not practice them as much, so it’s an illusion that we are getting worse. We are just out of practice.

Get out there and do something every day, if only for a few minutes. Change it up. Make it novel. Try new things. Put a twist on old things. Think of yourself as active, not sedentary. Your fitness will improve if you move more, and your brain will thank you.

That’s Aging Intelligently.

Explanation Unnecessary

You get in your car, stomp on the gas, and it moves forward, assuming you’re in gear. Explanation is unnecessary to making it go. You can be totally ignorant of the internal workings of a car, and still drive it. That’s the beauty.

Getting parts of your body to work correctly is the same. If you have an issue with your, say, right shoulder, it isn’t important to explain neuroscience, bio-kinetics, and anatomy to get your arm working correctly. You just have to know what to do. Or know someone who does.

When a trainer gives you a drill to move your left hip, and your right shoulder improves, you feel relief. Don’t argue with that person because you don’t understand what just happened. It might not make any sense to you, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it improved your shoulder range, pain, or stiffness.

You don’t need all the answers to feel relief. You just need to know someone who might have some answers, and is willing to work with you to find the answer for you.

If you want explanation, fine. You don’t need it to effect a change. What you need to know is that you need to take action about your frozen shoulder, bad knee, lower back pain, bunions, lack of flexibility, arthritis, or whatever else isn’t working correctly. Making a face and wincing is not considered effective action.

Seek help. And move something. See if it works. If it doesn’t, move something else. Keep moving things until you feel better. When that happens, consider yourself the genius that you are.

That’s Aging Intelligently

Visualize Your Way To Healthy Aging

If you have watched enough Olympics, you know that top athletes visualize their winning performances. In their mind’s eye, they see themselves performing perfectly before the actual performance. It’s called visualization, and it works for everything you do. Before a job interview, see yourself confident and articulate. Before your workout routine, see yourself strong, flexible, and exhibiting great endurance. Before an operation, see yourself healing with no complications, and pain lessened. If we understand what is happening, we can control and guide the outcome.

Your brain doesn’t know the difference between what is actual and what is imagined. When, for example, you imagine yourself having a pain-free, awesome workout, your chances of having a pain-free, awesome workout increase. To your brain, you are repeating something you have already done well. It’s a form of practice, and practice, even mental practice, makes perfect. The trick is to practice perfectly. Why would you practice any other way? See yourself doing everything correctly, utilizing all your senses that you normally use including breath control, endurance, correct positioning, speed, and strength. It reinforces the actual event. If you are lifting weights, running a marathon, skipping, holding plank for an extended time, or playing any ball sports, use all of your senses to incorporate the actual event. What would it feel like? How would it smell to sweat that much? What is your vision focused on? Feel the coordination and accuracy of movement.

It’s the same with aging. If you see yourself aging with illness, aches and pains, inflexibility, poor range of motion, reduced eyesight and narrowing peripheral vision, poor balance, loss of hearing, and overall poorer performance, that is exactly what will happen. You have visualized yourself into unhealthy aging. Is that what you want?

No? Than don’t visualize it. See yourself as strong, healthy, and lucid until the day you die, in your sleep. In your own bed. Not attached to any machine.

That’s Aging Intelligently.

The Springs of Life: Your Knees

Knees are happy when they’re working correctly. They make the rest of the body miserable when they don’t work. And all too often, we don’t give them the respect they deserve.

Knees are a cushioning agent for the body. They absorb shock, store energy, and help push off from the feet. You need knees to hike uneven trails in National Parks, climb stairs or step over a log, stabilize yourself on a boat, play any sport, and get into and out of a car.

Riding everywhere instead of sometimes walking, osteoarthritis, ligament tears, and meniscus injury all weaken the knees, thereby causing us to use them less. Walking up stairs is a burden, and it hurts. Walking down stairs and having knees give out is embarrassing.

According to a study published in Arthritis Care & Research, lower thigh muscle strength predicts the risk of knee osteoarthritis, more so in women than men. It is not to say that men will not get osteoarthritis. They will. Most people benefit from thigh muscle exercise.

One of the easiest, and most helpful, exercises for your knees is squats. I know, I know, ugh squats! Even if you don’t like them, your knees do. They strengthen the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support your knees, and hold them in place. The squats don’t have to be big, and your feet can be hip width apart and feet facing forward, or wider than hips and feet facing outward. In fact, doing squats in both positions is smart. Squats can be shallow or deep, fast or slow, take 10 seconds or 10 minutes. It’s up to you how strong you want your knees to be, and how fast you want to run if you ever need to. If you need to run from, say, a fire starting in a building, a tree coming down in your yard,  or hustle to catch a plane or train, fast is better than shuffling. Knees are important.

If you hate squats, try climbing stairs several times. Not only does it work your knees and legs, but it’s also cardiovascular. It’s a 2 for 1. Not having knees limits your choices in life. Who wants that?

Aging Intelligently

How To Care For Your Hard-Working Heart

The cardiovascular system is comprised of the hard-working heart, blood vessels, & about five liters of blood. You kind of knew that, didn’t you? And it’s more than that; it’s a transportation system of which blood vessels are the super highway. The hard-working heart, the most industrious working organ in the body, transports oxygen, nutrients, hormones, and cellular waste products throughout the body to the tissues. All this from something the size of a closed fist. At rest, every minute of every day, through sleeping and wakefulness, the heart is pumping about five liters of blood throughout the body. It’s an amazing process.

Arteries carry blood away from the heart. Arterial walls are thicker, more muscular, and more elastic because oxygenated blood is being forced away from the heart under great pressure.

Veins, on the other hand, are the return vessels for the blood. They bring blood back to the heart. Veins are more passive, and the pressure on them is less. The walls of veins are thinner, less elastic, and less muscular. They rely on gravity, inertia, and skeletal muscle contractions (read that: exercise and movement) to help push blood back to the heart to be oxygenated. As skeletal muscles contract, they push blood through valves closer to the heart. When the muscle relaxes, the valve traps blood until another contraction pushes it through another valve, always moving towards the heart.

This is why exercise and movement are necessary; they help to  move oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood through the body to the cells, and return the blood to the always hard-working heart.

How your heart works is not something to be taken lightly. The better and more often you move, the more you help your heart to work properly and efficiently.

That’s Aging Intelligently.

Two Mobility Skills For Independence

What actions can you still perform that you did at 17? Run, jump, skip, easily lie down on the floor and rise from it? Can you hop on one foot? Or hop from one foot to the other? Or hop from two feet to one, and back to two? To retain your sense of independence, learn mobility skills.

Why is hopping important? It involves balance, stability, quickness, and the concept of “throwing your weight.” Anytime you have both feet in the air, you are throwing your entire weight. That takes effort. It tends to get harder as we get older.

Hopping develops ankle, leg, knee, and hip strength. If you have to jump out of the way of an oncoming car or a small child careening down an aisle, you will be glad you developed hopping skills. If you cannot put two feet in the air at the same time, shift back and forth on your feet, picking up one foot and balancing for several seconds.

Another skill involves lying on the floor, and rising. From a standing position, lie down, completely relax flat. Now, get up from that position. All kinds of skills are involved in getting off the floor: abdominal strength, coordination, a sense of stability, an ability to roll over to begin standing, leg and arm strength, and balance. We forget how to rise from the floor because we don’t practice. We are not getting old; we’re out of practice.

Why is rising from the floor important? Some day you will fall. You trip over an uneven piece of concrete, you catch your shoe on something, your ankle gives out. Falling is common. I don’t know anyone who has never fallen. Everyone falls, sometime. The trick is to be able to get up. If you fall in your house and can’t get to a phone, you can’t get help. If you trip over a pebble on the sidewalk and can’t get up, it will start to rain to make it even more miserable for you.

Learn to get off the floor, any way you can. Use core strength, arms, legs, chairs, poles, the edge of a table, or a friend, but do not stay on the floor. It is a skill to retain through aging.

That’s Aging Intelligently

Five Movements For Healthy Longevity

Sixty-one percent of adults aged 65 and older have limited ability to perform basic actions, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. For healthy longevity, you should be able to bend down and tie your shoes, climb a ladder, push open a swinging door, pull down a bag of flour from the top shelf, and look behind you before changing lanes. These are  tasks from basic exercises, considered functional movements, and you should never lose the ability to do them. An active life is a long life. Being able to do functional movements allows you to enjoy leisure activities without thinking about whether or not you can participate. Will your knees allow it? Can you hike without discomfort? Can you pull open a gate?

Not moving is like rust: you become brittle instead of flexible, restricted in enjoyable activities,  joints hurt, arthritis flares, and injury becomes a companion. You know all about Advil. Practice these five movements everyday for healthy longevity: hip-hinge, single leg use, push, pull, and rotate.

Hip hinges are squats; bending from the hips, knees, and ankles. When you pick up a diamond earring from the floor, rise from a chair or sit in one, or use the bathroom, you become cognizant of hip hinges.

Single leg movements involve walking and climbing stairs. You balance on one foot, then the other as you move. As people age, balance becomes an issue, not because of age, but lack of practice. Stand on one foot. Climb more stairs; it strengthens the legs, and especially the knees. Even “easy riser” stairs are acceptable.

Push, as in pushing a cart at Costco, moving furniture around, or pushing yourself away from the dining room table. Or, push-ups, which develop chest muscles so you can push grandkids on a swing, or push yourself out of bed. Push-ups can be done with legs straight or legs bent, diagonally against a table, or against the wall. Any way you can do push-ups that doesn’t harm you, or hurt, is a good way to develop upper body strength.

Pulling involves opening a door towards yourself, raking leaves, or reaching for grocery bags in the backseat of your car. It can also involve pulling the dog or children behind you, who are resistant to that walk you want to take.

Finally, there’s rotation. If you golf or play tennis, put on your seatbelt, reach for wine on the table behind you, rake leaves, or dance on Saturday night, you know about rotation.

For healthy longevity and an active life, incorporate these five movements into your daily routine. Keep checking to make sure you can do them. If any one of them becomes difficult, you might want to practice more. The more choices you have in life, the better your life.

That’s Aging Intelligently

Fail More

Failing is how you learn to become successful. Don’t believe me? Watch a child learning to crawl, then walk, and finally run. Ever ride a bike? No one does it without falling off a few times. It’s how we learn. We decide to do something, we test our ability, we usually fail, we analyze what happened, we make adjustments, we try again. Maybe fail again. It’s a continual process of learning.

Failure is the road to success. We should not treat it as though it was not acceptable, that it was wrong, that we were inadequate. Failure is just a word, just as success is a word. It’s like wading through a stream to get to the other side. It’s necessary. Thomas Edison found 10,000 ways that would not work until he found the one way that would. We would be deprived of his genius, and his inventions, had he given up. 

Life should be progress, not arrival, and certainly not resting on your laurels. There are ups and downs, twists and turns, starts and stumbles and tap dancing. All of it is good. Get up one more time than you fall down. Fail more.

That’s Aging Intelligently

Diversity In Learning

What formal education does for us is take curiosity out of the equation of learning. We put students in rows of chairs from first grade, expect them to sit in the same position for 50 minutes at a time, hone in on what they need to learn to graduate from school, and delete the unimportant subjects, like dance and art. The problem is, some people can’t sit still. They don’t learn that way. If you let them move, they learn just fine. That’s where diversity matters. We all learn differently, and we need to explore, and be curious about, the ways in which we learn best.

This applies to life as an adult as well. We don’t learn as well as we could because we’re too structured. We’re sitting at a desk all day, answering the same phone calls, responding to the same memo’s with ever increasing stress. The lure of running, swimming, going to the gym, a bike ride, or taking the time to share a cup of coffee with a friend is as important as the job. It makes the job interesting and helps us learn. Our brain loves novelty. It gets bored doing the same old thing.

When we prime our brains to moving and being active, we learn better. It’s active learning. We’re ready to absorb new ideas, challenge the status quo. We haven’t been sitting for an hour or more in the same position, overloading our brain with more information that it can take in until it’s all a blur. Moving is a kinetic way of learning, adding to the visual and hearing method. There is no one right way to learn. Everything helps everything else.

Keep running and taking mental breaks with your friends. Play with the dog when you are sorting through a problem. Give your brain a break from work or study, and you will come back refreshed and ready to learn something new.

That’s Aging Intelligently.