Cohen Medical Associates is a family medical center and research center located in Delray Beach, FL.
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For Better Memory, A Little Exercise Makes a Big Difference

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach would prefer that all our patients follow the recommended guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), among others, to exercise moderately to vigorously for a total of 2.5 hours a week.

In reality, however, we know that doesn’t happen very often, despite the best of intentions. People’s schedules are already full, they don’t have a place to exercise, or perhaps their physical limitations preclude strenuous workouts.

This is a shame because study after study has shown the myriad benefits that come with regular exercise.

The payoffs of exercise

These include:

  • Heart disease – In addition to strengthening the heart muscle and lowering blood pressure, exercise can help you be more active without experiencing chest pain or other symptoms.
  • Diabetes – Regular exercise can not only help insulin more effectively lower your blood sugar levels, but help control weight and boost energy.
  • Asthma – Exercise has been shown to control the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.
  • Back pain – Regular low-impact aerobic exercise can help increase the strength of your back muscles and improve endurance and muscle function.
  • Arthritis – Exercise is the primary approach to reduce pain, help maintain muscle strength in affected joints, and reduce joint stiffness.

Other conditions that have been shown to benefit from regular exercise: 

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 
  • intermittent claudication (leg cramps while walking) 
  • depression
  • osteoarthritis
  • gallstones
  • diverticulitis
  • peripheral vascular disease 
  • as many as 12 kinds of cancer

Even more rewards

It’s amazing how many conditions show improvement following regular exercise.

In those who have had transient ischemic attacks, mini-strokes, for example, exercise has been shown to improve blood flow to the brain and diminish the risk of a full-blown stroke.

Another study found that just 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise lowered the risk of early death from any cause by 35 percent.

In addition, numerous studies have demonstrated that regular moderate exercise can help improve the brain function and thinking skills of individuals with early signs of dementia.

The research in this area is so strong that in 2017 the American Academy of Neurology updated its guidelines to health care providers, suggesting that they recommend twice-weekly aerobic exercise to their patients with early-stage memory issues.

Easy does it

As we said, however, not everyone can manage that type of exercise. If you fall into this group, we have some good news for you.

A government-funded study released this month found that simple stretching, balance, and range of motion exercises worked as well as regular aerobic exercises in slowing the progression of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Experts estimate that as many as one-fifth of people ages 65 and older have some level of MCI, defined as slight changes to the brain that affect decision-making, language, memory, or reasoning skills. Some of those with MCI will go on to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Given how much exercise has been shown to impact MCI, the researchers were not only happy but also relieved.

“My worry at the beginning of the study was, ‘What if only aerobic [exercise] makes a difference? Good luck getting the majority of Americans to do aerobic exercise on a regular basis.’ It’s not sustainable,” study author Laura Baker, a professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, told CNN via email.

“But we found that cognitive function did not decline over 12 months for either intervention group—the people who did aerobic exercise or the people who did stretching, balance, and range of motion,” she said.

Small moves, big results

The study, presented earlier this month at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego, involved 296 participants who were completely sedentary at the beginning of the study.

All had been diagnosed with MCI. They were then randomly assigned to two different groups. One did moderate-intensity aerobic training on treadmills or stationary bikes. The other did stretching, balance, and range-of-motion exercises, which also had the goal of helping improve their mobility. Both had extensive guidance and encouragement from trainers at YMCAs around the country.

“Folks in the balance-range of motion group said they were thrilled,” Baker told CNN.

“They could go to soccer games with grandchildren without being concerned about tripping, or they could drive and turn their neck to see the back, which they had not been able to do before,” she said.

But more important, the results on their cognitive decline—or lack of it—were impressive, said Baker. At the end of the yearlong study, neither group experienced any further cognitive decline; those in the sedentary control group did, however, decline further.

“Exercise needs to be part of the prevention strategies” for at-risk seniors, Baker told the Associated Press (AP), adding that her results show “this is doable for everybody,” not just those healthy enough to perform aerobics.

“It’s important to find an exercise you enjoy so it can sustain in your routine,” Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association, told CNN. Snyder was not involved in the study.

“For older adults, it’s important to discuss any new physical activity with your doctor to make sure it’s safe to do so,” she added.

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