Dance Your Way to a Healthier Aging Brain

Amy Norton wrote . . . . . . .

Dance classes may beat traditional exercise when it comes to improving older adults’ balance — and it might enhance brain areas related to memory and learning along the way.

That’s the finding of a small study that compared dance lessons against standard exercise — including brisk walking — among 52 healthy seniors.

Over a year and a half, older adults who took weekly dance classes showed gains in their balancing ability. There were no such improvements in the traditional exercise group.

Researchers also found hints that all those mambos and cha-chas had extra brain benefits.

Seniors in both groups showed growth in the hippocampus — a brain structure that’s involved in memory and learning. But the dancers showed changes in more areas of the hippocampus.

Patrick Muller, one of the researchers on the study, suggested an explanation: The “multimodal” nature of dance — its physical and mental components — might be behind the extra brain boost.

Seniors in the dance group had to continually learn and “imprint” new steps, explained Muller, a Ph.D. candidate at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Magdeburg, Germany.

Along with that mental challenge, he said, dance also involves coordinating movement with music — which itself affects the brain. Plus, there’s the fun, Muller noted.

David Marquez is an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said it’s hard to know what to make of the brain findings, since the study group was so small.

Marquez, who was not involved in the research, is studying the effects of Latin dance classes on older Hispanic adults’ well-being.

He agreed that dance can offer things that simpler repetitive activity may not.

“With dance, you’re having to think about each step,” Marquez said. “There are motor, cognitive and social components. And there’s the music.”

But, he added, both exercise groups in this study showed changes in the hippocampus, on average. And that’s in line with past research, Marquez noted: Studies have found that regular aerobic exercise, like walking, may boost the volume of brain areas involved in memory, planning and other vital functions.

“So the message is, get moving,” Marquez said.

Ultimately, he added, the “best” form of exercise for any one person is the one that can be maintained.

“If you don’t enjoy the activity, you won’t do it,” Marquez said. “So find something you enjoy and do it regularly.”

The study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, included healthy volunteers who were typically in their late 60s.

Half were randomly assigned to take dance classes over 18 months. The rest attended a traditional exercise program that included walking, stationary bikes, strength-training and stretching.

The dance group met twice a week for the first six months, then weekly. To keep participants on their toes, the dance styles changed every couple of weeks and ranged from Latin to line dancing to jazz.

Just 14 seniors from the dance group and 12 from the traditional fitness group stayed with the program for the full 18 months.

In the end, the study found, only the dancers showed clear improvements on balance tests. And while both groups had increases in their hippocampal volume, the dance group tended to show changes in more subregions of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is critical, according to Muller, because it is affected in dementia — including Alzheimer’s disease — and it can also shrink with age.

The big question, though, is whether dance can make any difference in the odds of seniors’ mental decline.

“Further research is needed to clarify whether this intervention truly has the potential to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” Muller said.

According to Marquez, it would be interesting to do the same study with older adults who already have some cognitive impairment, and see if there are similar brain changes.

For now, Muller said, the findings suggest dance might have some advantages over simpler repetitive physical activity.

But he agreed that exercise in general — plus a healthy lifestyle overall — “can help the brain stay young.”

Source: HealthDay

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Good Lifestyle Choices Add Years to Your Life

Change your lifestyle, change your life span.

That’s the claim of a new study that found not smoking, watching your weight and continuing to learn new things could help you live longer.

And genes play a part in the lifestyle choices people make, according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

“The power of big data and genetics allow us to compare the effect of different behaviors and diseases in terms of months and years of life lost or gained, and to distinguish between mere association and causal effect,” researcher Jim Wilson said in a university news release. But this study didn’t prove that lifestyle choices cause life span to shorten or lengthen.

For the study, scientists analyzed genetic information from more than 600,000 people in North America, Europe and Australia to determine how genes affect life span.

For example, certain genes are associated with increased alcohol consumption and addiction, the study authors explained.

Smoking and traits associated with lung cancer had the greatest effect on shortening life expectancy. The researchers determined that smoking a pack of cigarettes each day over a lifetime leads to an average loss of seven years of life.

But the good news was that smokers who quit the habit lived as long as people who never smoked, according to the report.

The investigators also found that body fat and other factors linked to diabetes reduce life expectancy. For every excess 2.2 pounds a person carries, life expectancy is cut by two months, the findings showed.

People who are open to new experiences and who have higher levels of learning also tend to live longer, the researchers said. Every year spent studying beyond school added almost a year to a person’s life span.

Wilson and colleagues also found that differences in a gene that affects blood cholesterol levels can reduce life span by around eight months, and differences in a gene linked to the immune system can add about half a year to life expectancy.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: Health Day


Today’s Comic

The Body Benefits of Pilates

If you’re looking for an exercise that’s gentle yet challenging and works your core like no other, consider Pilates.

Created by Joseph Pilates, a German gymnast and bodybuilder who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, this fitness method uses controlled movements that can help flatten your stomach, strengthen your back, and give you better posture and flexibility.

Pilates combines exercises with a special breathing technique and concentration, so it connects the mind and body, and can help relieve stress and anxiety.

Pilates can be done on the floor using a mat and your own body weight as resistance. This so-called “mat Pilates” follows a sequence of moves that flows like a dance — in fact, dancers were the first group to embrace the activity for the performance benefits it gave them.

Other exercises involve special equipment developed by Pilates himself, with springs and pulleys to create the resistance. Best known is the unusual bench called the Reformer. The tension can be adjusted, so “machine Pilates” is good for both beginners and advanced enthusiasts.

You can learn Pilates from videos, but consider taking classes or private lessons to get started. An experienced instructor can make sure you’re using proper positioning and breathing and help guide your development.

Of course, check the credentials of potential instructors to be sure they were trained by an established Pilates association.

Also, keep in mind that while Pilates is a great core workout, it’s typically not considered an aerobic exercise. Don’t forget your heart: Work Pilates into an overall fitness routine that also includes cardio, like walking or swimming.

Source: HealthDay


Today’s Comic

Tai Chi: A Gentler Way to Exercise for Ailing Hearts

People with heart disease who shy away from traditional cardiac rehabilitation may benefit from tai chi.

A small study found that the slow, gentle movements of this traditional Chinese practice may help increase physical activity among those who are reluctant to exercise.

More than 60 percent of heart attack survivors opt out of cardiac rehabilitation, often because of the perception that the exercise involved will be unpleasant or painful, according to the study authors.

“We thought that tai chi might be a good option for these people because you can start very slowly and simply and, as their confidence increases, the pace and movements can be modified to increase intensity,” said study author Dr. Elena Salmoirago-Blotcher. She is an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University.

“Tai chi exercise can reach low-to-moderate intensity levels,” she explained in a news release from the American Heart Association. “The emphasis on breathing and relaxation can also help with stress reduction and psychological distress.”

Participants in the study included 29 people, age 68 on average, who’d had a heart attack or a procedure to open a blocked artery. All were sedentary, and most had risk factors for heart problems, such as being overweight, smoking or having diabetes or high cholesterol. All of them also had rejected participation in cardiac rehabilitation.

For the study, they took part in either a short program (24 classes over 12 weeks) or a longer one (52 classes over 24 weeks). All were given a DVD so they could practice tai chi at home.

Tai chi was found to be safe for the participants with heart disease, with minor muscle pain at the very start the only negative effect. Tai chi also was well-liked by the participants, who all reported they would recommend it to a friend. The researchers said the participants attended 66 percent of classes, suggesting it’s a manageable routine.

Tai chi didn’t boost the participants’ aerobic fitness levels after three months. But those who completed the longer program did get more moderate to vigorous physical activity on a weekly basis, the study reported.

The findings were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“On its own, tai chi wouldn’t obviously replace other components of traditional cardiac rehabilitation, such as education on risk factors, diet and adherence to needed medications,” Salmoirago-Blotcher said.

“If proven effective in larger studies,” she said, “it might be possible to offer it as an exercise option within a rehab center as a bridge to more strenuous exercise, or in a community setting with the educational components of rehab delivered outside of a medical setting.”

Source: HealthDay

The Value of Strength Training

Regina Boyle Wheeler wrote . . . . . . .

Strength training — also called resistance training or, simply, weightlifting — isn’t just for those muscular bodybuilders at the gym.

It’s a type of exercise that should be part of everyone’s overall fitness plan. Why? Strength training keeps muscle toned, reduces body fat, and helps burn more calories even when you’re not working out.

Strong muscles are especially important as you age to stay steady on your feet and as independent as possible. A study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that a simple lower body strength and balance training program can decrease falls as you get older. Upper body strength counts, too, allowing you to accomplish everyday tasks, from carrying groceries to walking your dog.

If you’re new to strength training, a certified trainer can put together a plan with your fitness goals and ability in mind.

You don’t have to join a gym to strength train. You can work out at home using a set of free weights, such as a mix of dumbbells and barbells; a home weight-training machine; resistance bands that come in graduated tensions; or even plastic bottles filled with sand or water.

Do a total body workout at least twice a week, one that targets all the major muscle groups. An alternative is to break up your routine by focusing on your upper body two days of the week and on your lower body and “core” abdominal muscles on two other days.

As you get stronger, challenge yourself. Whenever an exercise in your current routine gets too easy, add more repetitions or more weight/resistance.

It’s important to give your muscles a break, too. Always allow two days between training sessions to give muscles time to recover and grow.

Source: HealthDay