In the course of getting physical therapy for a hamstring strain, I learned that my hamstrings and quadriceps (muscles in the upper leg) were weak. Hard to believe since I had started to ski again and was walking regularly. Well, maybe not so regularly. Who wants to go outside in the cold and rain? And it was the holiday season (November through February), which is always a busy time. The physical therapist put an end to any fantasies I had that I was still in good physical condition. His prescription? In addition to various stretches, he told me to work out on an elliptical machine for fifteen to twenty minutes a day.
I’d always exercised on the treadmill, so the elliptical machine provided a new experience, one that on the first day caused me to look down at the display that shows the amount of time I’d spent exercising and say, “How could only two minutes have passed? This device can’t be working correctly, because I’m dying.” I’m up to thirty minutes now, but after the first two minutes I still question whether I can continue and for how long.
Recent research tells us that the moral of this story for me and for you, is that we’d better stick to the exercise, and not stop, ever.
According to a January 9, 2103 article in the “New York Times,” titled “Do the brain benefits of exercise last?” by Gretchen Reynolds, “Multiple animal and human studies have shown that a few months of moderate exercise can create new neurons, lift mood and hone memory and thinking.” Good news, you say? Only if you’re willing to keep it up.
The brains of rats — the subjects of the animal studies — who were forced to give up skittering on their running wheels for three weeks, “contained far fewer newborn neurons than the brains of the animals that had rested for only one week. The brains of the animals that had been inactive for six weeks had fewer still.”
If some of you thought you’d keep your brains healthy by replacing exercise with doing a few more crossword puzzles, forget it. The puzzles may be enjoyable — a good reason to keep doing them — but if you want to avoid having brains with neurons that behave like those of the lab rats above, you’d better get out of your chair. In another study reported in the “New York Times” (“Exercise may help preserve brain shrinkage,” by Anahad O’Connor, Oct. 26, 2012), researchers followed six hundred people ages seventy-plus and concluded, “As far as mental exercise, ‘we can only say we found no benefit in our sample.'”
Time to put those running wheels back in the cage.