(Knowing what I know, Part 2)
“Knowing what you know about Alzheimer’s disease, what do you do differently in your own life?”
I wrote in a previous post about my initial response to this question that was recently posed to me, and continue here with Part 2 of my answer: regular exercise.
No, there is not conclusive evidence that physical activity prevents Alzheimer’s disease, although research suggests that it slows down age-related cognitive changes. But its impact on vascular disease (a major risk factor for vascular cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia) and other heart and brain health benefits are well-established. Exercise is the key to maintaining strong and efficient heart muscle and a healthy system of blood vessels to supply the brain with all of the essential oxygen and nutrients. The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, do muscle-strengthening activity (resistance or weight training) at least twice weekly, and that we find ways to spend less time sitting.
The preponderance of validated research aside: I, like many, intuitively know that exercise and movement makes me feel better, sleep better, and think more clearly. And many of my most important relationships and favorite memories have been fostered over long runs and running adventures.
I’m starting with exercise as the first in my list of lifestyle-related brain health interventions not because I think it’s the most important of the changes we can make when it comes to reducing our risk of developing dementia. (Stay tuned!) I start here because it’s the lesson I’m currently most in need of relearning. As a distance runner and marathoner, you might assume that daily exercise is habitual routine for me. But you’d be wrong.
Hoping to be able to keep running well into my old age, I made a conscious decision several years ago to downshift: running just three or four days per week, building in more rest days, and adding more low-impact cross-training activities, strength training, and stretching. Over time I’ve stuck with the “less running, more resting” part, but all of the other stuff quietly fell away somewhere between there and here. My work in community health education keeps me moving much of most days, and I have a standing desk to further reduce the amount of time that I spend sitting when I am in the office. But I will honestly confess that I otherwise don’t work very hard at working out hard.
Running is a simple joy that I always find time for. Getting to the gym for time in the pool, at the weights, or into a yoga or Pilates class, however, is pure struggle. The packing and unpacking of the bag, the driving and parking, the adherence to a schedule … I’d always rather just lace up my shoes and go out for a run. My work hours have always been long and irregular, and now with graduate school in the mix, time for exercise is scarcer than ever. But the evidence for the cognitive and physical benefits of staying strong and flexible as we age is clear, so I’m committed to working out a way to keep working out.