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Strength training for brains

Strength training increased the brain function of a group of older women according to a new study published this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Significant improvements were seen in executive functioning skills, including selective attention and conflict resolution. Strength training may be an effective way to prevent the decline in mental function associated with aging.

The take home messages:

  • strength training may reduce the decline of brain function. It does this by actually improving executive functioning skills like selective attention and conflict resolution. Lift weights and you will be better able to multitask, be productive, and enjoy work, play, and life.
  • How long: it may take a while (12 months vs. 6 months) to see the effects on cognitive functioning, but the effects are statistically significant
  • How often: it does not matter if you strength train once or twice a week–both schedules benefit the brain. The difference in benefits between once or twice a week is small. So get moving! However often you can. No amount is too little!

Why Care?

Cognitive decline among older adults is a pressing health care issue. Many adults dread, fear, or already live with the realities of mild cognitive impairment and dementia. Research into pharmacological interventions (i.e. drugs) continues and we search for “cures”. But the cognitive decline of old age need not be our destiny. The Canadian researchers were motivated to find effective primary prevention strategies for age-associated cognitive decline.

The researchers noted that previous studies indicated that physical activity might limit our spiral down towards forgetfulness and senility. These previous studies did not differentiate between aerobic activity and resistance training. Further investigations into aerobic exercise (running, walking, whatever that gets your heart pumping) have shown a that aerobic training enhances brain and cognitive function. Aerobic exercise was even shown to spur the creation of new brain cells that appear biochemically resistant to stress (and we all know stress is a major component of aging.)

Less research had been done on the effect of strength training. A promising study in 2007 showed that seniors improved memory performance and verbal concept formation after resistance training. ¹ The researchers asked themselves if perhaps strength training improved a wider range of brain functions.

The researchers studied the effect of resistance (strength) training on brain function.

Research Study Breakdown

Click for more insight

light bends


Yoga = the anti-stress, anti-inflammation drug

Yoga may reduce stress by reducing baseline levels of inflammation and reducing inflammatory responses to stressors.

Do yoga and your body

  • Starts with less stress (via less inflammation)
  • Reacts with less inflammation (meaning less stress)

Sensationalism aside, a new research study showed that these may be benefits of yoga.

The new research paper titled “Stress, Inflammation, and Yoga Practice” by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Lisa Christian, Ronald Glaser and fellow researchers at Ohio State University appeared in Psychosomatic Medicine January 2010.

The researchers took a look at inflammation by examining cardiovascular, inflammatory and endocrine responses of new and experienced yoga practitioners. They also tested signs of stress and inflammation before, during, and after the students did yoga vs. control tasks (walking and TV watching).

Why care about inflammation and stress?

When it comes to aging, stress and the inflammation it causes are the body’s mortal enemy. Inflammation is a known to play a role and a risk factor in diseases as varied as heart disease, strokes, arthritis, osteoporosis, gastrointestinal conditions, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, heart disease, allergies, Type II diabetes, many auto-immune diseases, periodontal disease, and frailty and functional decline. In addition, inflammation is now regarded as a risk factor for most cancers because of the evidence that inflammation influences tumor promotion, survival, proliferation, invasion, angiogenesis, and metastases. (Kiecolt-Glaser, 2010. p.1) ¹.

Even obesity is characterized by a state of chronic low-level inflammation. Chronic inflammation messes with the critical relationship between immunity and metabolism. (Inflammation, stress, and diabetes. (Wellen 2005.) ²

Stress causes inflammation. Stress comes in many forms including emotional and physical. [Emotions actually have a physical and whole body process, but that’s for another post.] Emotional and physical stressors activate immune and endocrine pathways that can enhance inflammatory molecules (pro-inflammatory cytokines).

Stress really is killing us.

Since inflammation is killing us, it would be useful to look at interventions (like yoga) that could reduce our levels of inflammation. If we can minimize the autonomic and inflammatory responses to stressful encounters then we reduce the total burden of stress on the body.

This newest study shows that experienced yoga practitioners begin with a lower baseline level of inflammatory molecules, and produce less of those inflammatory molecules in response to stress.

In fact, the same inflammatory molecules that are found at higher levels in obesity were found in lower levels amongst experienced yoga practitioners.

Since reducing inflammation may provide substantial short- and long-term health benefits, effective interventions such as yoga should become part of the standard of care. Preventative medicine becomes a key solution to our health care crisis. One of the study’s authors, William Malarkey, MD stated, “People need to be educated about this. They need to be taking responsibility for their health and how they live. Doing yoga and similar activities can make a difference.” (Science Daily) ³

I have a great interest in encouraging transparency and the free flow of information with regard to yoga research. Many times I find myself reading a summary of a new study or “finding” and wanting more than just the take away sound bite. I want to know who was part of the study, how methodical it was, what was measured, what kind of yoga they did, etc.

So this time, I did some digging around to find more details. The breakdown that follows is my own work and done in the spirit of creating openness and appreciation around clinical research being done.

I hope the following study breakdown provides useful information for yoga teachers, yoga students, and research nerds like myself :)

Jump to Research references and further reading.

Research Study Breakdown Click for more insight

Meditation + Money in Health Care Reform

# Meditation + Money in Health Care Reform

Meditation + Money in Health Care Reform

We know health care costs are are crazy. In the midst of our debate on health care reform we should be looking for innovative ways to decrease costs.

One suggestion is to place an emphasis on low tech, preventative medicine. We live in a culture that rewards the new, flashy gizmos. We favor high-tech interventions that work after disease has taken hold. A hospital or medical center can gleefully boast about its snazzy new fMRI machine or cutting edge technology in its advertising. The director can tell report to the hospital board with pride; the PR department has material for its website.

But how many thousands and thousands of dollars went into that piece of equipment? How much time and money was spent planning, researching the equipment, and training personnel?

If we are serious about improving health care and giving everyone access to quality health care (as we should be) then we need to seriously consider less expensive alternatives.

Eat Right, Move Right, Sleep Right

There are other strategies that can contribute to the public’s health.  Low-tech interventions, often occurring before disease takes hold can create meaningful benefits in the lives of patients. Nutrition, exercise, good sleep hygiene, all these things that we know to be good for us–somehow they’re lost in the discussion.

I lived as a work-study for a month at a center for holistic living. The leader there was to have famously said:

You only need to do three things in your life: eat right, move right, sleep right.

He would say that if you can really get these three things, everything else will take care of itself.

How many of us can say we attend to these three things with the diligence that we worry about our coffee?

Mindfulness Meditation

In addition to what we call “healthy lifestyle”, another low-tech strategy that also works both pre and post-disease is  meditation.

Meditation is an intervention that has received continued interest, research, and press. To that end, Kelley McCabe Ruff and Elizabeth R. Mackenzie, PhD, have written a review in the November 2009 issue of Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. Reviewing the research literature on mindfulness meditation and consulting with experts in mind-body medicine, the authors argue that

“The factor most responsible for driving up health care costs is the neglect to use low-tech strategies to prevent disease and promote health in favor of high-tech interventions to treat disease after it has arisen….

a wide-scale adoption of Mindfulness programs throughout the health care system would decrease costs by keeping people well and facilitating the healing process when they do get sick [from PRWeb]

As the evidence continues to pour in about the effects of meditation (as yours truly tries to show at my blog here and twitter account), there can be little doubt that meditation has real and tangible benefits. Evidence shows that mindfulness meditation and yoga can improve health and wellbeing by: improving heart health; positively effecting hypertension, mild-to-moderate forms of depression, and various forms of pain; relieving symptoms of stress, anxiety, and insomnia; promoting healthy digestion, fertility, and immunity; facilitating relaxation and restful sleep; diminishing the use of medications (e.g. diabetes, heart disease) and even changing our brains for the better, whether by changing the brain to resist stress, facilitating decision-making (including medical decision-making), or supporting the healthy lifestyle changes.

The Point

Such low-tech strategies may not be as glamorous as the latest and greatest technology out of the labs, and they may not have the talking points value of a robot that can do surgery remotely. But such interventions like meditation or healthy life style changes could have a profound effect on our collective health.

We should be working to make these low-tech solutions just as glamorous and “cool” as the pretty robot in the corner.

From top-down and bottom-up, policy leaders and consumers should demand greater widespread implementation of alternative, low-cost strategies to health care. Our bodies, minds, and pocketbooks demand it.

What do you think?

Do you think the google search for “how to meditate” should be trending?

Do you have other ideas for inexpensive suggestions that improve health and health care?

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