why to exercise today

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Why To Exercise Today: Just 20 Minutes May Yield Optimal Smarts

officeclock1

Truly some news you can use: A study out of National Taiwan Sport University suggests that if you’re facing a mental challenge — a tough exam, a job interview — and want to amp up your brain using exercise beforehand, 20 minutes (or 30 including warm-up and cool-down) may be the optimal dose. Runner’s World reports on the study here: How much exercise makes you smartest?

The study includes the gratifying finding that longer does not seem to be better, at least if you’re trying to score your best on the infamous Stroop Test:

In this case, the 45-minute session (55 including warm-up and cool-down) actually produced worse accuracy than the control condition, where participants just sat and read instead of exercising. So the message seems to be pretty clear: about half an hour of moderate exercise optimizes cognitive performance, and more than that may hurt it.

Now I’d just like to see a study on exercise dosing for optimal performance in public-speaking (or live-radio) situations. Anybody?

(Hat tip to Tom Anthony)

The Grown-Up, Full-Body Playground Workout In 10 Moves

(YouTube)

(YouTube)

Perfect timing. Yet another study, just out, finds that fun is good for you. Or rather, as The New York Times puts it:

“If you are aiming to lose weight by revving up your exercise routine, it may be wise to think of your workouts not as exercise, but as playtime. An unconventional new study suggests that people’s attitudes toward physical activity can influence what they eat afterward and, ultimately, whether they drop pounds.”

Responds one commenter: “Finding fun in fitness has to be an essential part of any effort.”

About once a week, I run — or rather, plod — up a giant hill. There’s no way I can call that fun. But at the top there’s a newly renovated playground, and I asked personal trainer Kat Setzer, who writes the How To Be An Athlete roller derby blog, to design a fun but efficient playground workout for real, middling-fit people like me. (As opposed to superhumans like the video hulk in the photo above. What good is a workout when you can’t even do an exercise once?)

Important note: No children were excluded from playground equipment in the making of this workout (none were out in the early morning when we ran through it. And honest, if they’d been around, we’d have given them dibs.) Also, remember to warm up and cool down. And aim for two or three circuits.

1. Swing split squat: Stand one long stride ahead of the swing and put one foot on the swing. Bend both knees until your front leg is bent to 90 degrees. Get your back knee as low as you can. Keep your weight on your front heel if possible. (Think of it as a lunge with your back foot up.) Fifteen times on each side.

Kat Setzer demonstrates the Swing Split Squat.

Kat Setzer demonstrates the swing split squat.

2. Swing knee tucks: Facing the ground, put your hands down in push-up position and your feet on the swing in plank position. Tuck your knees into your chest, then straighten your legs. Repeat. You can make this easier by putting your knees in the swing’s seat and holding a plank. Fifteen times.

Kat Setzer demonstrates knee tucks on the swing.

Kat demonstrates knee tucks on the swing.

3. Box jump onto platform Start in a squat next to a platform that’s 6-12 inches from the ground, feet shoulder width apart, legs parallel. Continue reading

Fifty Shades Of Sweat: 10 Enticing Reasons To Exercise Naked

(rachel a.k./Flickr Creative Commons via Compfight)

(rachel a.k./Flickr Creative Commons via Compfight)

You slip upstairs to the attic, before anyone else in the household is awake. You drop your pajama pants. You slough your top. Goosebumps prickle. You mount the stair machine and start to climb.

It began innocently. You were in a morning time crunch with just 15 minutes to spare, and thought: “Why put on workout clothes just to sweat them up? Every minute I spend dressing or undressing is one less minute of exercise. Simpler just to wear nothing.”

But then, you learned the surprising sweetness of exercise unclad. Several minutes into your climb, just as your breathing is starting to deepen, you break your first sweat, on your scalp and forehead, just as you would in a public gym. But then, the difference: as the beads of fluid form all over your body — droplets on your wrists, your back, your chest, under any fold of skin — the air touching you cools them, making you feel them more.

You’re exquisitely conscious of the first full-fledged drop that slithers down your midriff, tickling you as it goes. Then another, down your side, below your armpit: a sensitive swath, rarely touched.

You’re breathing hard and deep now. You’re past your warm-up, well into the thick of it. You’ve always failed at meditation, unable to keep your mind clear for even a minute. But you find that when you’re pushing hard like this, it’s easy to concentrate on nothing but your breath. The music is pounding loudly, and you’re breathing along with its rhythm. You’re sucking in air and puffing it out: breath on the beat. Breath on the beat. Thinking of nothing. Just breathing.

And now you’re post-peak. You’re easing up, catching your breath. You feel a droplet jiggle and then run down your lower back, into the dip of your coccyx. Multiple drops from beneath your armpits. Now is when the sweat flood comes, as you slow up.

You savor the ratcheting down, the return of your normal breathing. In the dimness, in the mirror across the room, you see your back sparkling, diamonds of liquid catching and reflecting the light. And you think, “That’s beautiful.”

Still not convinced? Let us enumerate points of persuasion. (And let us stipulate that not all of us have private enough places to indulge. Also, let us note that high-impact exercise may require bodily straps and supports to fight the physics of dangling and jiggling; but stairclimbing, recumbent biking, and many strength workout moves do not.)

1. Join the classical aesthetic tradition

"Greek victorious youth athlete' in the Getty collection (Wikimedia Commons)

“Greek victorious youth athlete” in the Getty collection (Wikimedia Commons)

Remember all those full-frontal muscular men on classical vases? Don’t they reflect a custom of nude workouts and competitions? I asked Harvard’s Emma Dench, professor of the Classics and of History. (Actually, I had a false memory that it was the Romans who did all that posing and prancing.) Her response:

The Romans got terribly worried about the idea of exercising in the nude (moral laxity/homosexuality), which they thought of as a very Greek custom. But the ancient Greeks indeed exercised and competed in the nude, enjoying a cult of the beautiful body that often has upper class connotations and that is also associated with male-male admiration and sensual or even outright sexual pleasures that were sometimes problematized. I don’t think they came up with any utilitarian explanation: I think it was rather an aesthetic ideal.

2. Laundry

Obvious. According to family lore, a cousin of mine even moved to a nudist camp to avoid laundry.

3. Back to essentials Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Fitness In Youth May Mean Smarter Middle Age

(Sangudo/Flickr Creative Commons via Compfight)

(Sangudo/Flickr Creative Commons via Compfight)

In a frou-frou paper store this weekend, I saw a precious stack of little aerograms that were meant to be “letters to my future self.” My first reaction was, “Wait a minute, aren’t you supposed to write a letter to your past self, telling yourself everything will be okay?” My second reaction was to start composing: “Dear future self, if you’re reading this I’m still alive. Good.”

Today, a study featured in the New York Times — Early Fitness May Improve The Middle-Aged Brain — serves as a reminder that our current selves are affecting our future selves all the time. In particular, you’ll be thanking yourself later for the exercise you do now. From the Times:

The more physically active you are at age 25, the better your thinking tends to be when you reach middle age, according to a large-scale new study. Encouragingly, the findings also suggest that if you negligently neglected to exercise when young, you can start now and still improve the health of your brain.

More detail: Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: A Longer Life, Even If You’ve Got Health Issues

Exercise is my religion: in my family we use it for mental health, good sleep, clearer minds, calmer moods and bursts of joy. It inevitably gives us a boost, even when we’re not feeling so hot.

And, according to a new study, exercise offers the ultimate health benefit, even to people who aren’t particularly healthy and suffer from elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels or oversized waist lines. What’s the benefit? A longer life.

frodrig/flickr

frodrig/flickr

From the study, published in PLoS One:

The promotion of increased physical activity is clearly a powerful vehicle for prevention of cardiovascular disease and premature mortality. Every adult without major disease should benefit from increased physical activity, with the greatest health benefits associated with high levels of exertion. Our study confirms the independent role of recreational physical activity in predicting and reducing cardiovascular deaths, even after the common association with conventional risk factors and obesity has been accounted for. These findings support public health endeavor to promote exercise over and above the treatment of conventional risk factors.

From Gretchen Reynolds’ Times report:

More surprising, when the researchers controlled for each volunteer’s Framingham risk score and waist size, they found that exercising still significantly reduced people’s risk of dying from heart disease. The benefits were fainter, amounting to about half as much risk reduction as before adjustment for these health factors. But they accrued even among volunteers who had less-than-ideal blood pressure, cholesterol levels or waistlines. Someone with a high Framingham score who exercised had less risk of dying than someone with a similar score who did not.

The study’s results do not suggest, of course, that any of us should now willfully ignore cholesterol or other standard risk factors when considering heart health, said Satvinder Dhaliwal, a professor at Curtin University, who with Timothy Welborn and Peter Howat, conducted the study. But the data does suggest that “identifying and increasing physical activity” may be “at least as important as the measurement and treatment of lipids and hypertension,” he said.

Why To Exercise Today: Bargain Workout Videos In Going-Out-Of-Business Sale

(From Collage Video email to catalog subscribers)

(From Collage Video email to catalog subscribers)

This is the first time CommonHealth has ever announced a sale. We do stories, not commerce. But the sale in question marks the demise of a unique exercise institution: Collage Video, a 27-year-old, Minneapolis-based retailer of nothing but exercise videos and DVDs (and a bit of workout-related miscellany.)

I’ve received their catalog for years, and sometimes read it cover to cover. Its in-house reviewers tested every exercise video and wrote up its strengths and weaknesses. But mostly, month after month would feature inspiring photos and stories of women — virtually always women — who lost dozens of pounds and got into great shape, all by working out to videos in their own living rooms. It was a window into millions of private fitness efforts happening behind closed doors. It was also a window into what’s hot in fitness, from core work to Tabata to High Intensity Interval Training.

It’s a tough media world, and tech never stops morphing. “Video” is a retro term now; masses of fitness content comes free online and on cable these days; and behemoths like Amazon are surely hard for a Minneapolis boutique to beat. I’ll miss you, Collage. And I do believe you helped a great many people in your 27 years.

Why To Exercise Today: In Mice, Running Offsets Fat Effects On Brain

Lab mouse (Rama/Wikimedia Commons)

Lab mouse (Rama/Wikimedia Commons)

The latest Phys Ed column in The New York Times offers some intriguing findings in mice suggesting that exercise may be particularly good for your brain if you’re overweight.

Columnist Gretchen Reynolds describes a Journal of Neuroscience report that the chemical effects of obesity appear to seep past the blood-brain barrier, causing inflammation and apparently making fat mice perform worse on memory tests. Those effects could be reversed by surgically removing great quantities of fat from the mice, but those operations went far beyond any human form of liposuction. So the researchers tried exercise. Reynolds reports:

After 12 weeks, the running mice still weighed about the same as the unexercised animals. But they had lost significant amounts of fat from around their middles, while adding lean muscle. More telling, they did much better on cognitive tests than the sedentary mice and, when the researchers examined tissue from their hippocampi, showed little evidence of inflammation and robust levels of the chemical marker of synaptic health. The results suggested that, as the scientists write in the study, “treadmill training normalized hippocampal function,” even in animals born to be fat and that remained heavy.

Of course, these studies were conducted in mice, not people, whose brains may respond very differently. But the possibility that humans, too, may respond in similar ways is tantalizing, Dr. Stranahan said, and the takeaway from her study worth repeating. “Get out and move,” she said, even — and especially — if you carry extra weight.

Why To Exercise Today: It Even Appears To Help Your Eyes

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

God help us, when will it ever stop? Is there no organ, no medical condition, no tiny part of the human body that is not helped by exercise?

A new mouse study in the The Journal of Neuroscience finds that exercise appears to be good for the retina, and may even slow the development of age-related macular degeneration, which is estimated to affect nearly 2 million older Americans. The key appears to be a helpful protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. From the press release:

Moderate aerobic exercise helps to preserve the structure and function of nerve cells in the retina after damage, according to an animal study appearing February 12 in The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings suggest exercise may be able to slow the progression of retinal degenerative diseases.

Age-related macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of blindness in the elderly, is caused by the death of light-sensing nerve cells in the retina called photoreceptors. Although several studies in animals and humans point to the protective effects of exercise in neurodegenerative diseases or injury, less is known about how exercise affects vision.

Machelle Pardue, PhD, together with her colleagues Eric Lawson and Jeffrey H. Boatright, PhD, at the Atlanta VA Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation and Emory University, ran mice on a treadmill for two weeks before and after exposing the animals to bright light that causes retinal degeneration. The researchers found that treadmill training preserved photoreceptors and retinal cell function in the mice.

“This is the first report of simple exercise having a direct effect on retinal health and vision,” Pardue said. “This research may one day lead to tailored exercise regimens or combination therapies in treatments of blinding diseases.” Continue reading

What Makes Olga Run: The Full Scoop On The 94-Year-Old Track Star

Olga Kotelko embraces her rivals after winning the 100-meter dash at the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland. Photo: Ken Stone of masterstrack.com, used with permission. One shows her

Olga Kotelko (right) embraces her rivals after winning the 100-meter dash at the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in Lahti, Finland. (Photo: Ken Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

“Most inspiring thing I’ve read in a long time,” I said happily to myself as I turned the last page of “What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives.”

At the  World Masters Athletics Championships at Sacramento State University in July, 2011, Olga Kotelko (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com) won the event with a mark of 5.32 meters (17 feet, 5 1/2 inches). (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

At the World Masters Athletics Championships at Sacramento State University in July, 2011, Olga Kotelko won the event with a mark of 5.32 meters (17 feet, 5 1/2 inches). (Photo: Chris Stone / masterstrack.com, with permission.)

You may have caught author Bruce Grierson’s 2010 profile of Olga Kotelko in the New York Times Magazine, and her appearance on On Point. (And she was just on “The Today Show,” too.)

But Grierson’s new book offers a much fuller look at the broader context — the science of aging, and exercise — and her own particulars, from her eating habits to her genes. I spoke with Bruce about the Olga Phenom and what it can teach us. Our conversation, edited:

How old is Olga, as we speak?

She’s 94; she’ll be 95 on March the 2nd, so that’s a new category.

That’s right, an even emptier age category in the Masters Track and Field events where she competes.

You’ve never seen anyone as excited about a birthday as she is about turning 95. What’s cool about Master’s Track is that they’ve framed it so you really do get excited about getting older, because it means you’re closer to this next category, where competition is yet thinner and the chances of you winning a gold medal are yet better. So instead of dreading birthdays, everybody in this whole milieu is excited to grow older. It’s pure genius.

The question of the title, “What Makes Olga Run,” is certainly interesting — her motivation — but my biggest question is “How can Olga run? At an age when most people hobble?”

You mean, how is it possible that somebody seems to be staving off or forestalling the normal effects of aging? What everyone wonders is, can we be like that? How sui generis is this woman? And how unusual? And that leads to the question, is it all genetics? Because if it’s all genetics, that’s still cool, she’s still interesting, but it doesn’t mean as much to the rest of us if there’s nothing we can do to be a little bit more like her.

The inspiring idea is to ask, ‘Where are my opportunities to grow?’ She asks that still, even in her mid-90s.

So we tried to investigate that, by doing genetic testing, to the extent you can do it, and just looking at her family history, that’s a big one: If she comes from a long line of long-lived people and all her siblings are long-lived and her parents were, then you can start being quite confident that genes are driving the longevity part of this — but she doesn’t. The rule of thumb is that longevity is two-thirds nurture and one-third nature – only a third of it is our genes and the rest is how we lived, and what we’ve been through, and our habits and our thoughts, and what we’ve done with the hand that we’ve been dealt.

Not to deny, though, she’s got some lovely genetics at some level: Her hand-eye coordination is off the charts, as I discovered when we went golfing. And also the resilience that she’s shown, being able to do all these different events and virtually never get injured, there’s some sort of genetic protection there in addition to her good habits of stretching and being very alive to when she’s taxing herself too much and backing off.

That was so interesting, this concept of “interoception,” and how some people can just read the signals from their own bodies better than others. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today, Ladies: So You Don’t Die Too Soon

Many research studies are subtle, indirect, couched in caveats.

But this one, from Cornell, really cuts to the chase: the more you sit (and I’m talking to our female readers here), the earlier you may die. So, stop checking your email girls; get off your tuckus.

Here’s how the Cornell news release puts it:

Too much sitting around is bad for women's health, researchers find (Photo: JoeInSouthernCA/flickr)

Too much sitting around is bad for women’s health, researchers find (Photo: JoeInSouthernCA/flickr)

…a new study of 93,000 postmenopausal American women found those with the highest amounts of sedentary time – defined as sitting and resting, excluding sleeping – died earlier than their most active peers. The association remained even when controlling for physical mobility and function, chronic disease status, demographic factors and overall fitness – meaning that even habitual exercisers are at risk if they have high amounts of idle time.

Need we say more? (We will: there are, of course, some caveats, for instance, “sedentary time” in the study was self-reported — always potentially unreliable.) Still the researchers conclude: “Postmenopausal women who reported greater amounts of sedentary time had an increased risk of all-cause mortality after controlling for physical activity, physical function, and other relevant covariates.”

And more from Cornell PR:

[Nutritional scientist Rebecca Seguin] and co-authors found that women with more than 11 hours of daily sedentary time faced a 12 percent increase in all-cause premature mortality compared with the most energetic group – those with four hours or less of inactivity. The former group also upped their odds for death due to cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and cancer by 13, 27 and 21 percent, respectively.

“The assumption has been that if you’re fit and physically active, that will protect you, even if you spend a huge amount of time sitting each day,” said Seguin, assistant professor of nutritional sciences in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. “In fact, in doing so you are far less protected from negative health effects of being sedentary than you realize.”

Worse still, Seguin said, excess sedentary time tends to make it harder to regain physical strength and function. Women begin to lose muscle mass at age 35, a change that accelerates with menopause. Regular exercise, especially lifting weights and other muscular strength-building exercises, helps to counteract these declines, but her research finds that more everyday movement on top of working out is also important for maintaining health.

“In general, a use it or lose it philosophy applies,” Continue reading