Fitness Tips

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Exercise Keeps the Brain Sharp By Lee Dye

05 May, 2015

New research shows that physical fitness can actually affect the structure of the human brain, and exercise may be our best friend when it comes to keeping the old noggin tuned up while we age.

We've been told for years that staying fit helps fight off the decline in cognition due to aging, and that's common sense because the brain, after all, is part of the body. But for the first time scientists have literally looked inside the human brain and found that people who exercise regularly maintain a physiological advantage over couch potatoes.

To put it simply, their brains don't shrink as much.

Keeping Your Grays and Whites

The researchers used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of 55 volunteers between the ages of 56 and 79. They found that those who were physically fit had lost far less of their brain's gray and white matter than those who got very little exercise.

"People who are most fit showed the largest benefit," says psychologist Arthur F. Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They showed the least amount of reduction in brain volume."

Gray matter is home to the neurons that are so important to learning and memory. White matter is sort of the brain's Internet, with fibers that send signals throughout the brain. Scientists have known for years that these tissues begin to shrink at about the age of 30 in a pattern that closely matches declines in cognitive performances, says Kramer, leader of the research team.

But the new research shows that the decline can be minimized by physical exercise, because the fitter participants had more gray and white matter than those who exercised less.

Furthermore, the areas that showed the most benefit are the same areas associated with mental decline due to aging, such as short-term memory loss.

The researchers found far more gray and white matter in the frontal, temporal and parietal cortexes among the physically fit participants.

That's particularly significant because of the role each of those areas plays in the cognitive processes.

Crucial Cognition

"The frontal areas of the brain have a lot to do with what people call higher-level cognition," Kramer says. That's where we synthesize information, and store data we've just acquired. If that's not up to par, you're likely to forget a phone number that you just looked up.

The temporal lobes consolidate short-term memories and build them into long-term memories. The parietal lobes allow us to navigate.

"People call it spatial cognition, to get around in the world," Kramer says.

All of those areas are associated with mental decline due to aging, and "those seem to be the areas that are most responsive to fitness training," he adds.

The participants were all well educated men and women, ranging from sedentary to very fit athletes. Three-dimensional brain scans were done on each participant, allowing the researchers to measure the density of white and gray matter.

Kramer cautions against drawing too many conclusions from the University of Illinois study, because more research needs to be done.

"This is the first study ever to look at the link between brain structure and fitness," he says.

But it fits neatly with other major studies at the university, also led by Kramer. Another study shows that even people who begin exercising late in life "show pretty dramatic benefits."

Doctor: ‘Get Off the Couch’

But those who start younger reap the greatest rewards, adds Kramer, a physical fitness nut who has even climbed Alaska's Denali (also known as Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America.

If you want to keep your senses, he says, the evidence is clear: "Get off the couch, no matter how old you are."

"There's no reason not to start if you're older, and there's no reason not to start earlier if you're younger," he says. "We've been doing this kind of work for years, and 20-year-olds always say to me, 'Well, what does it matter? I can always wait until I'm 60.'

"My reply is the effects tend to be larger if you start younger. So if you plan to be around when you're 70, it might be a good idea to start now."

Another study led by Kramer, which will be published in the March issue of Psychological Science, revealed some similar results. It found:

Exercise programs involving both aerobic exercise and strength training produced better results on cognitive abilities than either one alone. That suggests that the old rule of walking 30 minutes a day, three days a week, may not offer as much protection against mental decline as a more vigorous routine.

Older adults benefit more than younger people because age-related declines are more pronounced.

The magnetic imaging study will be published in the February issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences. The studies were funded by the National Institute on Aging and the New York-based Institute for the Study of Aging.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

Sneaky Sugars

01 April, 2014

Even if you don't have a sweet tooth, chances are you take in more than your fair share of sugar each day. Added sugars can be found in everything from soda to salad dressing and even in otherwise healthy foods like yogurt.

The World Health Association recommends cutting back on refined sugar to reduce your risk of obesity. The added sugar in our diets seems to be adding up to extra pounds on American waistlines. The amount of added sugars in products is on the rise. According to the American Dietetic Association, the average American consumed about 123 pounds of added sugar per year in 1980. By 1999, that number had risen to 158 pounds. Why? We eat out more often, and we're eating more and more packaged foods and drinking more and more beverage.

The Sugar Bowl

You don't need to have a sugar-free diet, but reducing the amount of sugar you consume is a wise decision. Look for the following items on the ingredients label — they're all forms of sugar:

* Corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup

* Molasses

* Honey

* Fruit juice concentrate or fructose

* Sugar - white, brown, raw or cane

Look for the amount of sugar listed on the "Nutrition Facts" Panel of the foods you buy. It will be listed in grams. Because that doesn't mean much to most of us, use this simple equation to determine how much sugar is in the foods you eat: 7 grams of sugar = 1 tablespoon of sugar

For example, if the label on your strawberry yogurt says it has 21 grams of sugar, that's the equivalent of 3 tablespoons. And the 20-ounce frozen coffee drink you had as an afternoon snack not only had 400 calories, but also 18 teaspoons of sugar. Now that's a little hard to swallow.

Remember: No matter what the source is, be it the natural fructose in strawberries or the added sweetness of corn syrup, it all winds up in the same place on the nutrition facts label. If a product only lists fresh or dried fruit in the ingredients list, you know that the sugar is derived from these sources. However, if cane sugar and corn syrup are listed in addition to the strawberries, you know that sugars have been added.

Cutting down on sugar:

  • Avoid heavily sweetened breakfast cereals. Go for ones that have 10 grams of sugar or less per serving.
  •  Energy bars and drinks are a common source of hidden sugar. Look for ones that have less than 12-15 grams of sugar per serving.
  •  Watch out for reduced fat and fat-free products. Sugars are often added to mask the loss of flavor when fat is removed. You may be cutting out fat, but not necessarily calories.
  •  Limit sweetened beverages like milkshakes and coffee drinks, which are deceptively full of sugar and calories.
  •  Buy juices that are 100 percent fruit juice. Be careful about products that say "100 percent natural." That doesn't mean they're not loaded with added sugars. Avoid products that call themselves "juice cocktails" and "juice beverages."
  •  Mix fresh or dried fruit into plain yogurt. Many fruity yogurts are loaded with added sugar.
  •  Learn to appreciate the natural tartness of fruits like grapefruit, strawberries and other berries. Choose fruit when it's in season and it shouldn't need any added sweetness.


Take Your Heart for a Walk

04 February, 2014

Wondering if your walking routine is robust enough to really help your heart? Wonder no more.

Research has revealed that walking can do as much to keep you out of heart trouble as more vigorous forms of exercise, such as running, playing tennis, or doing pretty much anything that makes you break a sweat. In one study, women who walked briskly for 2.5 hours per week reaped the same heart disease protection benefits as women who did more intense exercise for the same amount of time.

When it comes to walking and heart health, speed and frequency count. Yes, strolling is better than sitting, but you get the most benefits if you really step out -- ideally for 30 minutes a day, most days. Exercise lowers heart disease risk in many ways. Walkers and other regular exercisers experience less cardiovascular aging: they have fewer heart attacks and strokes, they have lower blood pressure, and they have higher blood levels of heart-protective HDL cholesterol. And the benefits add up fast. In as little as 90 days, doctors can actually measure the age-reducing effects.

SOURCES: Walking compared with vigorous exercise for the prevention of cardiovascular events in women. Manson, J. E., Greenland, P., LaCroix, A. Z., Stefanick, M. L., Mouton, C. P., Oberman, A., Perri, M. G., Sheps, D. S., Pettinger, M. B., Siscovick, D. S., New England Journal of Medicine 2002 Sep 5;347(10):716-725.

New Years Resolution Motivation by Kay Hedges

10 January, 2014

Maintaining motivation for self-improvement is difficult for some people. Resolutions from last year are easily forgotten. But, the New Year offers chances for a new beginning. So, how do you stay motivated to accomplish these resolutions, and avoid another year of neglected goals?

When setting your resolutions for the future, try to identify the results you really want, rather than what you think you should want. This point is important, because if you’re not pursuing what you really want, you are headed in the wrong direction.


Start out by choosing three areas of your life that need to change or improve. It can be anything from generating more income, creating more personal time, taking your business to the next level, or attracting a new relationship.


Write them down so that you can envision how they interact with each other. The big picture helps to identify the steps needed for success in each one. It also helps in sustaining your motivation to accomplish each step.

Now write down goals for each area, dividing them in small, manageable steps. This list should be kept somewhere accessible, because changes and updates help keep it relevant. Keep the following suggestions in mind as you focus on your destination:

1. Do whatever it takes to make it happen. Concentrate your attention on the destination you wish to reach. Be sure that what you choose aligns with your purpose and passion so that your commitment is strong. If you’re not fully committed, take another look at your list. Chances are you have picked areas that are misaligned with your heart.

2. Focus as if you had already finished each task. Create a course of action under each item that leads to its completion. Make a list of thirty day promises. Break down each action into steps that can be completed. Remain focused on the small steps. At the beginning of each month, check for progress, and address any roadblocks that pop up.

3. Do at least one small step each day. The sense of accomplishment helps keep you on track.

4. Reassess your total progress about every sixty to ninety days, to determine what’s working and what’s not, so that you can make needed adjustments.

5. Create a motivation strategy by listing people and things that provide a needed incentive. Include things you will do when you become discouraged or distracted, and use the tools you have to stay motivated and focused.

6. Identify those thoughts that cause avoidance, stalling, or sabotage the process. Ignore the excuses that threaten to stall progress.

7. “I don’t have the time.” Time issues are really about how you schedule your time, rather than trying to find more time. We all have the same 8760 hours in a year to use. Are you making choices that improve the quality of your life, or ones that add more problems and stress?

8. “I can’t afford it.” Find a way to make things happen that are aligned with your list. What do you think it might be costing you to use this excuse? Money, peace of mind, or your dreams?

Review your vision for the year. Put your focus on the destination, and eliminate those distractions that contribute to your success.

Once you create a motivation strategy, it is much easier to stay committed. Keep adding things to it, so it expands, and reflects those things you really want.

By working on personal development, feelings of frustration and disappointment slowly disappear. Identify your attitudes and behaviors. Invest your time, energy, and resources to get to know yourself well. Look at who you are, and why you do what you do. Having the courage and determination to invest in self-reflection is critical to achieving success and fulfillment.

As you progress, keep at it, and go deeper. Be willing to discover things about yourself that are hidden more deeply inside. The answers you seek are within you.

Another Excuse Bites the Dust

18 December, 2013

Think it's too late to add years to your life? Studies say it isn't so.

Even if you're a late bloomer when it comes to exercise, don't let your couch-potato past stop you. Recent research found that sedentary women 65 and older who turned over a new leaf and got moving cut their chances of dying from cancer in half and from heart disease by a third. That's no small potatoes.

If you haven't moved a muscle in ages, put yourself on a walking program first -- aim for 30 minutes a day -- and make an appointment with your doctor for an exercise prescription. It should cover:

Type: Combines aerobic (stamina), strength, and flexibility exercise, but one type may be especially important for you.

Frequency: Lets you know how often you should exercise.

Intensity: Tells you how hard to push yourself. Basically, start at a comfortable level and work up from there.

Time: Sets a guideline for how long you should work out.

Progression: Helps you determine when to change what you're doing; set some step-by-step goals together.

Benefits: Makes clear what you can expect, and you'll understand the specific ways your routine will help your health.

After that, just follow doctor's orders.


The 30-Minute Rule, a great endorsement for our new "Group Ride R-30"!

25 October, 2013

Are you busy sitting all day?
Some days there's no way around it. Stuff you need to do -- drive, work, plan a get-together, deal with e-mail, pay bills -- is stuff you do sitting down. But yet another study has shown that getting as little as 30 minutes of activity a day is all it takes to reduce mortality risk by 14 percent. So sweep the patio, have a pillow fight with the kids, walk while you talk on the phone. It all adds up.

You don't have to train for a triathlon to reduce your risk of life-shortening diseases. You just need to increase your daily moving time -- that is, activities that get your heart going -- to at least 30 minutes. Know what else can help you live longer? You guessed it: eating more fruits and veggies. Just one extra serving each day -- an apple or pear or a cup of leafy greens -- cuts your risk of dying from anything by 20 percent. Huge benefits for modest efforts.

Study shows why exercise boosts brainpower

17 October, 2013

Exercise boosts brainpower by building new brain cells in a brain region linked with memory and memory loss, U.S. researchers reported Monday.

Tests on mice showed they grew new brain cells in a brain region called the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus that is known to be affected in the age-related memory decline that begins around age 30 for most humans.


The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging scans to help document the process in mice -- and then used MRIs to look at the brains of people before and after exercise.

They found the same patterns, which suggests that people also grow new brain cells when they exercise.


"No previous research has systematically examined the different regions of the hippocampus and identified which region is most affected by exercise," Dr. Scott Small, a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York who led the study, said in a statement.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said they first tested mice.


Brain expert Fred Gage, of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, had shown that exercise can cause the development of new brain cells in the mouse equivalent of the dentate gyrus.

The teams worked together to find a way to measure this using MRI, by tracking cerebral blood volume.


"Once these findings were established in mice, we were interested in determining how exercise affects the hippocampal cerebral blood volume maps of humans," they wrote.




How do I choose a fitness program?

10 October, 2013

When choosing a fitness program, you want to find programs that fit your goals, abilities and interest levels so that you stick with it. Beginning with personal and physical assessments will help identify key areas that your program will need to include and will give you a baseline on where you started so later you can reassess to see how you are progressing. There are many different components of a fitness program that should be included to help you reach your goals and keep you motivated. These components include proper stretching, strength training, cardio training and nutrition. Also keep in mind that you want to build a strong foundation before you start adding heavy weights so you can become stronger and most importantly, avoid chances of injury. Whatever program you choose (whether resistance training, kettle bell training, Pilates, or training for a marathon) build your body from the inside out, beginning slowly with low to moderate intensity exercises and focus on building your muscle endurance by performing a higher number of repetitions for each exercise. This will help you increase your inner strength while working on your outer strength.


Wendy Batts, Fitness Expert