Swimming Gives Your Brain a Boost – But Scientists Don’t Know Yet Why It’s Better than Other Aerobic Activities

Seena Mathew wrote . . . . . . . . .

It’s no secret that aerobic exercise can help stave off some of the ravages of aging. But a growing body of research suggests that swimming might provide a unique boost to brain health.

Regular swimming has been shown to improve memory, cognitive function, immune response and mood. Swimming may also help repair damage from stress and forge new neural connections in the brain.

But scientists are still trying to unravel how and why swimming, in particular, produces these brain-enhancing effects.

As a neurobiologist trained in brain physiology, a fitness enthusiast and a mom, I spend hours at the local pool during the summer. It’s not unusual to see children gleefully splashing and swimming while their parents sunbathe at a distance – and I’ve been one of those parents observing from the poolside plenty of times. But if more adults recognized the cognitive and mental health benefits of swimming, they might be more inclined to jump in the pool alongside their kids.

Until the 1960s, scientists believed that the number of neurons and synaptic connections in the human brain were finite and that, once damaged, these brain cells could not be replaced. But that idea was debunked as researchers began to see ample evidence for the birth of neurons, or neurogenesis, in adult brains of humans and other animals.

Now, there is clear evidence that aerobic exercise can contribute to neurogenesis and play a key role in helping to reverse or repair damage to neurons and their connections in both mammals and fish.

Research shows that one of the key ways these changes occur in response to exercise is through increased levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. The neural plasticity, or ability of the brain to change, that this protein stimulates has been shown to boost cognitive function, including learning and memory.

Studies in people have found a strong relationship between concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor circulating in the brain and an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for learning and memory. Increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor have also been shown to sharpen cognitive performance and to help reduce anxiety and depression. In contrast, researchers have observed mood disorders in patients with lower concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

Aerobic exercise also promotes the release of specific chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. One of these is serotonin, which – when present at increased levels – is known to reduce depression and anxiety and improve mood.

In studies in fish, scientists have observed changes in genes responsible for increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels as well as enhanced development of the dendritic spines – protrusions on the dendrites, or elongated portions of nerve cells – after eight weeks of exercise compared with controls. This complements studies in mammals where brain-derived neurotrophic factor is known to increase neuronal spine density. These changes have been shown to contribute to improved memory, mood and enhanced cognition in mammals. The greater spine density helps neurons build new connections and send more signals to other nerve cells. With the repetition of signals, connections can become stronger.

But what’s special about swimming?

Researchers don’t yet know what swimming’s secret sauce might be. But they’re getting closer to understanding it.

Swimming has long been recognized for its cardiovascular benefits. Because swimming involves all of the major muscle groups, the heart has to work hard, which increases blood flow throughout the body. This leads to the creation of new blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis. The greater blood flow can also lead to a large release of endorphins – hormones that act as a natural pain reducer throughout the body. This surge brings about the sense of euphoria that often follows exercise.

Research in people suggest a clear cognitive benefit from swimming across all ages. For instance, in one study looking at the impact of swimming on mental acuity in the elderly, researchers concluded that swimmers had improved mental speed and attention compared with nonswimmers. However, this study is limited in its research design, since participants were not randomized and thus those who were swimmers prior to the study may have had an unfair edge.

Another study compared cognition between land-based athletes and swimmers in the young adult age range. While water immersion itself did not make a difference, the researchers found that 20 minutes of moderate-intensity breaststroke swimming improved cognitive function in both groups.

Kids get a boost from swimming too

The brain-enhancing benefits from swimming appear to also boost learning in children.

Another research group recently looked at the link between physical activity and how children learn new vocabulary words. Researchers taught children age 6-12 the names of unfamiliar objects. Then they tested their accuracy at recognizing those words after doing three activities: coloring (resting activity), swimming (aerobic activity) and a CrossFit-like exercise (anaerobic activity) for three minutes.

They found that children’s accuracy was much higher for words learned following swimming compared with coloring and CrossFit, which resulted in the same level of recall. This shows a clear cognitive benefit from swimming versus anaerobic exercise, though the study does not compare swimming with other aerobic exercises. These findings imply that swimming for even short periods of time is highly beneficial to young, developing brains.

The details of the time or laps required, the style of swim and what cognitive adaptations and pathways are activated by swimming are still being worked out. But neuroscientists are getting much closer to putting all the clues together.

For centuries, people have been in search of a fountain of youth. Swimming just might be the closest we can get.

Source: Conversation

Global COVID-19 Cases Are Rising Again

Data of 220 countries and territories as of July 29, 2021

Source: Worldometers

Want to Avoid Sleep Apnea? Get Off the Sofa

Here’s yet another reason to limit screen time and get moving: Boosting your activity levels could reduce your risk of sleep apnea, according to a new study.

Compared to the most active people in the study, those who spent more than four hours a day sitting watching TV had a 78% higher risk of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and those with sedentary jobs had a 49% higher risk.

And that added risk was not due to their weight.

“We saw a clear relationship between levels of physical activity, sedentary behavior and OSA risk. People who followed the current World Health Organization physical activity guidelines of getting at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, and who spent less than four hours per day sitting watching TV, had substantially lower OSA risk,” said study leader Tianyi Huang, an assistant professor and associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, in Boston.

People with this disorder stop and start breathing many times during sleep. Common symptoms include snoring, disrupted sleep and excessive tiredness. Poorly managed sleep apnea can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, irregular heartbeat and type 2 diabetes.

After accounting for risk factors such as obesity, age, smoking and drinking, the researchers found that people whose activity levels were equivalent to three hours of running a week had a 54% lower risk of sleep apnea than those whose activity levels were equivalent to two hours a week of walking at an average pace.

The study included more than 138,000 U.S. women and men without a diagnosis of sleep apnea. They were followed for 10 to 18 years. Over that time, more than 8,700 were diagnosed with the condition.

So are desk jockeys doomed? Not necessarily.

The researchers said folks with sedentary jobs could lower their risk by getting more exercise in their leisure time. Also, those who can’t do much physical activity due to physical limitations could lower their risk of sleep apnea by standing or doing other gentle activities more often.

The study was published in the European Respiratory Journal.

“Importantly, we saw that any additional increase in physical activity, and/or a reduction in sedentary hours, could have benefits that reduce the risk of developing OSA,” Huang explained in a journal news release.

The difference in risk between sedentary work and time spent sitting watching TV could be explained by other behaviors related to those activities, the researchers suggested.

“For example, snacking and drinking sugary drinks is more likely to go along with watching TV compared with being sedentary at work or elsewhere, such as sitting during traveling. This could lead to additional weight gain, which we know to be a risk factor for OSA,” Huang noted.

It’s estimated that 1 billion adults worldwide, aged 30 to 69, have mild to severe sleep apnea.

Anita Simonds, president of the European Respiratory Society, was not involved with the study but commented on the report. She said, “It is encouraging that even a small increase in physical activity or reduction in sedentary hours could reap potential benefits. It is therefore an important message to get across to our patients and their families in primary care and respiratory clinics.”

Source: HealthDay

Korean-style Steamed Abalones

Ingredients

6 abalones
3 walnuts
6 gingko nuts
2 cups green sweet peas
radish and parsley to garnish

Sauce

3 tbsp soy sauce
1-1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp rice wine
3 cloves garlic
1 piece ginger
dash black pepper
1/8 tsp sesame oil
1/2 cup water

Method

  1. Clean the abalones and scald in boiling salted water.
  2. Remove the shells and entrails from the abalones. Score the insides at 1/4″ intervals crosswise and lengthwise.
  3. Soak the walnuts in hot water and peel off the inner skin using a toothpick.
  4. Fry the shelled gingko nuts with salt until the color becomes green. Rub off the skins.
  5. Boil the sauce ingredients in a pan, add the abalones and simmer.
  6. On a skewer, string the gingko nut, abalone and walnut alternately. Place the skewered food on the shell of the abalone.
  7. Boil the green peas in salted water and stir-fry lightly. Spread them on a plate and arrange the abalone in the shells on top.
  8. Garnish with the red radish and parsley before serving.

Source: Low-fat Korean Cooking


Today’s Comic

What Religion Can Tell Us About a Well-lived Life

Gillian McCann and Gitte Bechsgaard wrote . . . . . . . . .

When determining why religious people tend to be healthier, both mentally and physically, certain connections can be easily understood. The links between the community that is often provided by religious affiliation and better health are more and more well known. The work of psychologists like Susan Pinker has argued for the buffering influence of community and human contact and its connection with longevity. However, other vital contributions that are made to well-being by religion are often less clear.

Religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions provide overarching world views. These help us to orient in the many situations we may come up against in the course of their lives. These beliefs, which are often developed in childhood, are not necessarily front of mind or even conscious much of the time, but they have important implications for well-being and a well-lived life.

Pleasure versus purpose

Spiritual traditions have a great deal to say about what constitutes the “Good Life.” As we have mentioned before on this blog, spiritual traditions often have a very different approach to happiness than secular ones. Happiness, as with so many words, ends up a challenge to define. This is because ideas of happiness lead directly into a larger conception of our understanding of a well-lived life. This varies a great deal depending on your worldview. Is the Good Life one based on personal pleasure? Or is it a life spent in service to others?

Much of mainstream public discourse on the Good Life has largely been hijacked by commerce and travel companies. It is presented to us as someone lounging on the beach or playing golf. It is depicted as a life that is centered around the individual and their amusement. Essentially this is the hedonist worldview—that freedom from work and entangling relationships constitutes happiness. But does this really lead to the sense of a fulfilled life?

It turns out no, it doesn’t. In her ongoing work on meaning versus happiness, Emily Esfahani Smith argues that pillars of happiness are related to eudaimonia. This is a Greek term that refers to an overall sense of well-being rather than fleeting happiness. This way of approaching life encompasses ideas of meaning and purpose nor simply referring to changing emotional states.

Eudaimonia does not presuppose a life free of struggle and strain. Esfahani Smith makes an important point that while, for instance, having children may lead to stress, it is ultimately one of the key sources of meaning for many people. Standing up and fighting for a cause may be extremely inconvenient and often discouraging but provides for a sense of contributing to society and of meaning overall.

Research indicates what may at first appear to be counterintuitive to many who are constantly bombarded by ads for resort vacations and lotteries. If we look at occupations that show the most satisfaction, they consistently include those who work in “helping” professions, such as teaching and nursing. The feeling of making an important and meaningful contribution trumps salary in terms of career satisfaction.

Sociologist Émile Durkheim made this argument about the importance of meaning over a century ago. Durkheim, who was himself a mostly secular Jew, was concerned with the waning power of religion and its implications for society. He coined the term anomie to describe a person who had lost all sense of meaning and purpose in their life. Detached from religion, from relationships to others, anomic individuals were, he concluded, dangerous both to themselves and to those around them.

One of the key contributions of religious and spiritual traditions is precisely that they offer a sense of meaning and purpose. This outlook fosters resilience and a deeper feeling of satisfaction. It places all the events of human life within a larger pattern and the sense that each individual life is valuable. Religious people often frame experiences as meaningful, even when they are challenging. This other-oriented approach offers a very different interpretation of what we mean when we say “a Good Life.”

Source: Psychology Today