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Exercise boosts longevity, acuity

The weakest and oldest among us can become some sort of athlete. But only the strongest can survive as spectators. Only the hardiest can withstand the perils of inertia, inactivity and immobility.

— Semin ArthritisRheum (1984)

I am about to repeat myself "¦ and I must. Every time I read the above quote, I am moved to move. Read it again. I have placed it on the mirror in our bathroom to motivate me if I falter in readying myself for a morning walk.

Aerobic (meaning "with oxygen") exercise requires moving the large muscles of our bodies in intentional rhythmic activities such as walking, biking or swimming. I do that, but not enough. Do you? Not enough, I suspect. Only about 30 percent of people 18 years or older engage in any kind of physical activity on a regular basis.

We've always known exercise keeps us fit, keeps weight off and even improves mood, Now we are learning that it's a critical factor in keeping our minds and memory intact as we age.

If you subscribe to Newsweek magazine, perhaps you saw the recent cover story, "Exercise and Your Brain" (in the March 26 issue). The quote that got my attention this time focused on how exercise seems to restore the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain).

Ready for this? It's pretty powerful stuff: "It's not a matter of slowing down the aging process; it's a matter of reversing it." That remark came from one of the psychologists involved in this research, Arthur Kramer. I think he just might be my new hero.

There's more. For the first time, researchers have identified a set of factors that seem to predict "exceptional survival" (Consumer Reports on Health, April 2007). They define it as living to age 85 free of any major disease with physical and cognitive function intact.

And one of the major reasons? I think you know.

A study of Harvard alumni done over the course of several years showed the lowest death rate occurred for those who burned 300 or more calories in energy each day through exercise or activity. (For the record, walking slowly burns five calories per minute).

"Exercise is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth" says longevity researcher Dr. Jay Olslansky.

With that kind of recommendation it seems like we should all be lacing up our walking shoes right about now. And yet we don't. I know, it's hard to get started. Let's make it easier.

Here's an idea. It's called "exercise snacks" (www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek). Start like this. Keep track of your activity for an entire weekday and an entire weekend day. Then tally the minutes you spend moving vs. sitting or lying down. Decide to increase the active portion by just 10 minutes (that's the "snack" concept).

For example, instead of sitting, you could pace about the living room while you're talking on your cell phone. Or do repetitive heel-toe stands in the grocery store checkout line. Choose your own personal way of moving "¦ and then move.

You might think of it this way. Need a snack? Take ten.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu