It used to be that I resented the amount of time my dad spent playing golf. When I was a kid, for example, he seemed obsessed.
Every weekend in the warm-weather months he’d be out on the links. An economist in Ottawa’s civil service, he’d return home from work on weekdays and disappear to the backyard, to practice his swing. He’s 76 today, and retired, and he still shoots a nine handicap. Except now, I don’t resent it.
Now, I recognize golf has helped my dad maintain a remarkably active and healthy lifestyle long into retirement. And when the Ottawa climate cools, he trades in his clubs for skis and heads to Edelweiss, the Gatineau ski resort. With my mom, he probably logged more than 30 ski days last winter. Out there in the fresh air, burning calories? We’ve long known that such activities are helping his body, and more recently a growing area of research suggests physical activity also helps his mind. That’s right — physical activity does seem to stave off age-related cognitive declines in older people.
Now, I wonder whether my dad could be doing better — if, that is, his goal is staving off memory problems that develop with age. Academics like to group exercise into three types. Aerobic exercise gets the heart rate up and the respiratory system going.
Flexibility exercise involves stretching. Then there’s resistance training, which makes muscles work against an applied force (i.e., lifting weights). My dad’s skiing and golf would be considered low-strain aerobic exercise, with some flexibility and core strengthening.
In the old days, outfits such as Dallas’s Cooper Clinic were known for espousing the brain benefits of aerobic activity. More recently, I’ve been telling my patients to conduct their exercise in thirds — one-third strength training, one-third stretching and one-third aerobic exercise.
But lately, a University of British Columbia academic named Teresa Liu-Ambrose has been conducting some intriguing studies that suggest we should pay more attention to the effects of strength training on maintaining cognitive function. An earlier study by Liu-Ambrose was the first to establish that strength training even as rarely as once a week can significantly benefit brain functions in senior women. Her most recent study, which appeared in the April edition of Archives of Internal Medicine, was a small proof-of-concept exercise designed to compare the benefits of aerobic training to resistance training. Which one was better at staving off the effects of age-related cognitive decline?
Researchers selected 86 Vancouver-area women aged 70 to 80 with mild cognitive impairment and self-diagnosed problems with memory. One group of women conducted instructor-led resistance-training classes twice a week — basically, weight training. One group conducted aerobic training in the form of rigorous walking, and the third group conducted something called balance and tone training, which is similar to yoga, involving stretching, range of motion and balance exercises. After six months, researchers conducted MRI and cognitive function tests on the groups. The women who had engaged in the resistance training logged improved results in key areas of brain function. Meanwhile, the aerobic group improved its balance and mobility, but didn’t significantly improve brain function.
The test suggests that people who want to give themselves the best chance of staving off cognitive impairment should incorporate a strength-training component into fitness regimens. That’s not to discount aerobic exercise, which can help overall psychological well-being and quality of life.
Also, strength training doesn’t have to mean weights in a gym. Many resistance exercises use little more than one’s body mass, such as push-ups. Others use elastic tube bands. The American College of Sports Medicine says elderly patients benefit from at least twice a week of eight to 10 resistance exercises of major muscle groups for eight to 12 reps each.
For years I’ve been prescribing my older patients who ask a three-part regime for staving off age-related brain function decline.
The first is to participate in mentally stimulating activities. Jobs tend to provide that for most people, but if the patient is retired, I suggest taking up some new activity that requires learning, memory training and problem solving — playing bridge or taking up Sudoku, for example. The second suggestion involves socializing and relaxing with friends — in other words, staying in contact with other people.
My third suggestion to fight brain aging has always been exercise. Before, I wasn’t picky about what kind. Every little bit helps, I always said, regardless of whether it was push-ups in a hotel room or just opting for the stairs over the elevator.
Now, thanks to the UBC studies, I might suggest my dad do some lunges with dumbbells in between golf swings in the backyard. Poor mom.
–Dr. James Aw is the medical director of the Medcan Clinic, a leading private health clinic in Toronto. For more information, visit medcan.com.