By Susan Burke March
As if you needed another reason to stay active as you age, a new study published in the journal Neurology (March 14, 2018) showed that women with high physical fitness at middle age were nearly 90% less likely to develop dementia as they age, compared to those who were moderately fit.
A Swedish study followed middle-aged women for 44 years starting in 1968, monitoring their physical activity levels and testing them periodically for dementia until 2009.
At the start of the study, they measured the peak cardiovascular capacity of 191 women (average age 50 years) by having them ride an exercise bike until they were exhausted. Forty women met the criteria for a high fitness level, 92 women were in the medium fitness category, and 59 women were in the low fitness category — they had to stop the test early because of their high blood pressure, chest pain or other cardiovascular problems.
Over the next 44 years, the women were tested for dementia 6 times. During that time only 5% of women in the highly fit group developed dementia, compared with 25% of moderately fit women and 32% of the low fitness group. The highly fit women were 88% less likely to develop dementia than the moderately fit women. Among the women who had to stop the exercise test due to problems, 45% developed dementia decades later.
Since Alzheimer’s and other dementias are believed to develop at least 15-20 years before symptoms appear, it appears that besides being preventative against overweight and cardiovascular disease, exercise protects the brain.
As reported in USAToday.com, “This type of study can’t say exactly what type of exercise is best, or how much is needed.” They quote Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach at the non-profit Alzheimer’s Association, as saying that exercising at any point in life is better for your brain than not exercising at all. He also says that exercise … “may not necessarily give you longer life, but there’s a compelling body of work that [shows] it will give you more good years.”
And of course, what’s good for women’s hearts and minds is good for men’s, too.
Time.com weighs in on this study and writes, “Current recommendations suggest at least 30 minutes of exercise at least two or three times a week, until people feel a little tired but not exhausted. For people who are not active, that could mean starting out with shorter sessions of 10 or 15 minutes, but getting 30 minutes of exercise total in a day. They could start with brisk walking on flat surfaces, and as that becomes easier, include some routes that require walking up hills. As you become more fit, you can include more intense interval training that intersperses a few minutes of intense activity with a few minutes of stretching or less intense exercise.” Cuenca is the perfect place for increasing your fitness, built on the barranco, with lots of escaleras or stairs, and in Cuenca they’re called gradas.
Of course, other factors are critical to good health! Don’t smoke, enjoy a whole-foods diet with healthy fats, sufficient fruits and vegetables, and get enough sleep — these healthy habits can decrease the risk of inflammation and vascular diseases.
I reached out to Sky Rajewski, a professional trainer with some strong academic and professional credentials, and owner/operator of SkyFit “Strong to the Core” Center for Health & Fitness in Cuenca, for her take on this latest research.
Sky says, Too old to exercise? No! Even if you have never exercised in your life, you can begin at any age and reap the physical and mental benefits. The key is to find a physical activity you enjoy and partake daily. I can give endless examples of senior exercisers who began late in life and who are now amazingly fit, healthy and have excellent mental acuity. Two of my favorites — at age 70 one of my clients had a triple bypass, after which she committed to exercise on a daily basis. At age 80 she attends fitness class three times a week, does 20 pushups daily, goes hiking, cross-country skiing and kayaking on weekends. A fellow mountaineer took up hiking in his 60s and as he approaches 90 he’s out there, climbing daily. Check out Sky’s Facebook page here.
As someone once said, the best time to exercise is when you do it. Walking briskly with my poles on the Tomebamba is my early morning routine (I see the same lovely and friendly Cuencanos cada día!). What’s your routine?