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Lack Of Exercise May Mean Smaller Brain Size

If you want to keep your brain from shrinking as you age, your best bet may be to keep your body physically fit. New research from Boston University School of Medicine found that poor physical fitness in midlife was linked to smaller brain size (a sign of accelerated brain aging) 20 years later. Researchers used treadmill tests to assess the physical fitness of 1,583 people whose average age was 40. All were participants in the long-running Framingham (MA) Heart Study, and none had heart disease when they took their first treadmill test. They were re-evaluated with treadmill tests two decades later and also underwent MRI scans of their brains. Results showed that the poorer the participants performed on their original treadmill tests, the more volume their brains had lost over the 20 years. The researchers also reported that the higher an individual’s blood pressure and heart rate rose during the first treadmill test - changes that could mean lack of fitness - the smaller their brains were likely to be on the MRI scans 20 years later. The study doesn’t prove that poor physical fitness caused the brain shrinkage observed, but does suggest an association.

Exercise + Meditation = Less Depression

A combination of meditation and aerobic exercise can help reduce symptoms of depression, a new study suggests. Researchers at Rutgers University have reported that twice-weekly sessions of exercise and practicing meditation for eight weeks cut symptoms of depression among a group of students by 40 percent. The investigators recruited 22 students diagnosed with depression and 30 mentally healthy students for the study. All agreed to perform 30 minutes of focused attention meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise twice a week. They were instructed to focus on their breathing if their thoughts drifted to the past or future. The goal was to enable students with depression to accept moment-to-moment changes in attention.  The researchers reported that the program helped students with major depressive disorder avoid being overwhelmed by problems or negative thoughts. The same combination of meditation and exercise also benefitted a group of formerly homeless young mothers with severe symptoms of depression and high levels of anxiety. The women, who were living in a residential treatment center when the study began, reported  that their depression and anxiety had eased and they felt more motivated and better able to focus more positively on their lives after completing the eight-week program.  This study was the first to combine meditation and exercise to address depression.

My take? These study results are welcome news. I have long recommended physical activity as the most reliable method for immediate, symptomatic treatment of depression. Numerous studies have demonstrated the efficacy of a daily workout for improving emotional health and boosting self-confidence. I recommend 30 minutes of continuous activity, at least five days a week for best results. I’m also a strong advocate of meditation, as well as breathing exercises, as part of an integrative approach to addressing mild to moderate depression. 

Exercise To Fight Off Colds

Getting regular exercise strengthens muscles and conditions our hearts, and it may also bolster the immune system enough to help us ward off colds and flu. A study from South Korea examined this potential benefit in mice. The researchers reasoned that inflammatory compounds produced in fat cells can weaken the immune system’s response to illness or infection. However, exercise can reduce the number and size of fat cells and thus potentially lower levels of inflammation. To test whether physical activity can actually have that effect, the researchers compared the results of infection with Staphylococcus bacteria in mice that exercised and those that didn’t. They divided laboratory mice into two groups. Those in one went about their usual activities, while those in the other group exercised by swimming. Because they’re not natural swimmers, the mice expended a great deal of energy staying afloat. Even though the strain on their muscles promoted some inflammation, the exercise also led to fewer and smaller fat cells. After putting the mice through the exercise, the researchers inoculated half the swimmers and half the sedentary mice with Staphylococcus. All the infected mice became ill, but the swimmers had lower levels of pro-inflammatory cells and their bodies produced greater numbers of immune system cells capable of fighting the infection. Would this effect be reproducible in humans?  The Korean researchers think so.

My take? These findings may help explain how aerobic exercise strengthens the immune system. We know that exercise conditions our hearts and arteries and respiratory systems, increases stamina and general fitness. It also promotes cleansing of the blood by stimulating circulation and perspiration, and leads to a sense of well being, in part by releasing endorphins, the opiate-like molecules in the brain that can make us high, happy, and more tolerant of discomfort. Physical activity also increases the flow of oxygen to all organs, enabling them to work more efficiently. It burns calories, reduces stress, lowers serum cholesterol and tones the nervous system. Given its positive impact on the entire body, it makes sense that exercise would also help us fight off colds and flu.

Exercise in Dr. Weil’s Life (video)

Throughout his life, Dr. Weil has practiced various types of exercises. From running and hiking to biking and swimming, see which ones he enjoyed in his youth and middle age - and which he chooses now.

The Path to More Weight Loss

If you’ve been on track to lose weight by following the national recommendations to exercise 150 minutes a week, new research from Canada suggests that you can boost your results by doubling your exercise time to 300 minutes a week. This simple strategy worked for a group of postmenopausal women in a yearlong study. The investigators enrolled 384 women whose BMI ranged from 22 (a healthy weight) to 40 (obese) and divided them into two groups. Half the women were asked to exercise the recommended 150 minutes a week. The other half committed to five hours (300 minutes) of exercise per week. All the women were non-smokers, had no other medical diagnosis, and were not on hormone replacement therapy. None of them changed their diets, but all were asked to exercise intensely enough to raise their heart rate for at least half their exercise session to 65 to 75 percent of their heart rate reserve – the difference between resting heart rate and maximum heart rate – by performing aerobic activity. Most of the women worked out on an elliptical trainer, walked, biked or ran. The participants who exercised for 5 hours a week lost significantly more weight, lost more belly fat, dropped their BMI and pared their waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio to a greater degree than did the women who exercised for only 2.5 hours a week. The exercise effects were most pronounced for the obese women, the researchers reported. And since body fat is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, they noted that the weight loss can help lower the risk. In addition, by paying attention to diet, you could likely lose even more weight with the extra exercise. 

Tired of Working Out?

If your physical fitness routine has become redundant, change it up! These seven suggestions can help you get energized and excited to work out – give them a try.

A healthful diet is not the only factor when it comes to achieving a healthy weight - physical activity plays an important role as well. While it may seem challenging to find time to work out, the long- and short-term health benefits make it a necessary aspect of achieving optimum health and a healthy weight. These seven simple tips can help get you moving and your calories burning! 

1. Join a gym. Make an appointment with a trainer on staff - he or she can help design a plan for your goals, level of fitness, health concerns or time constraints. Then go! (If you think a gym membership is beyond your budget, many health-care plans now offer reimbursements if you visit the gym a certain number of times per month. Contact your provider for more information.)

2. Get prepared. Wear the proper footwear, removable layers or light clothing; start slow and work your way up; and avoid dehydration by drinking more water than you think you need.

3. Try a new workout. The number of fitness classes is practically limitless these days. From indoor cycling to outdoor boot camps, yoga in the park or barre classes that emphasize classic ballet moves, the options abound. An added bonus: new classes can keep your mind and body equally challenged. Consider joining a class, watching videos online or via DVD, or downloading any number of free apps that provide a variety of fitness experiences.

4. Partner up. It's more fun if you don't go it alone when it comes to exercise, and the right partner can keep you inspired. Start by enlisting a friend for a weekly walk, and build from there.

5. Try yoga. It is an effective and enjoyable way to burn calories, increase muscle mass (which in turn burns more calories) and enhance stretching, which is important for keeping joints limber and preventing injury. Classes likely abound in your area, or start with a DVD or online video if a class seems intimidating. 

6. Start dancing! Fast-tempo dancing is not only fun (especially when you get some friends to join you) but can burn 400 to 500 calories per hour.

7. Get practical. If weightlifting or logging miles on a treadmill seem too uninspiring, remember that mowing the lawn, rototilling a garden, building a backyard shed or some other physical, productive task provides a good workout as well.

Running or Walking: What’s the Healthier Choice?

While both are excellent ways to burn calories, boost your metabolism and keep your body working smoothly, when it comes to the best overall exercise, Dr. Weil thinks one is the clear winner. Find out which exercise he chooses!

On the face of it, you might figure that when covering the same distance - say, a mile - you would burn the same number of calories whether you walk or run. After all, while walking is less strenuous, it takes longer for a walker to cover the distance.

But running requires much more effort than walking - you're actually jumping from one foot to the other as you propel yourself forward, a major muscular undertaking. Bottom line: running burns 50 percent more calories than walking over any given distance, even though running takes less time.   

Still, I think walking is the best exercise choice for most of us, particularly as we get older. Walking may not burn as many calories as running, but it offers the great advantage of being a practical substitute to driving for short trips, since you can do it in street clothes and you don't typically arrive in need of a shower. Further, it requires no skill or practice. Everyone knows how to do it, and the only equipment you need is a good pair of shoes. You can walk outdoors or indoors (in shopping malls, for example). It is the safest exercise option of all, with the least chance of injury.

The key to making walking pay off is to do it briskly. Aerobic walking cannot be casual or intermittent. Keep at it until you can walk about three miles in forty-five minutes. Doing this at least five times a week is one of the best moves you can make for a lifetime of health.

Want to Improve Your Abdominals?

Want to stretch and strengthen your hip flexors and abdominals? Try this yoga pose! There are variations for different levels, so most everyone can enjoy its benefits.

Yoga can help tone and strengthen all parts of the body, including internal organs. The Full Boat Pose is an abdominal and deep hip flexor and strengthener, requiring you to balance on the tripod formed by your sitting bones and tailbone.


The benefits of the Full Boat may include:

  • Strengthened abdomen, hip flexors, and spine
  • Stimulation of the kidneys, intestines and thyroid and prostate glands
  • Stress relief
  • Improved digestion

There are variations, including one you can perform while sitting at your desk! Learn more about this pose, including what it looks like, how to properly execute it, and who this pose may not be right for. Click here to see the Full Boat Pose.

Outdoor Workout, Better Results

Engaging in outdoor exercise may be an effective strategy for midlife women who want to become more active - a small Canadian study found that women who did outdoor workouts attended more sessions than those who exercised indoors and exhibited greater tranquility afterward. Sticking to the program wasn't the only benefit - the researchers at the University Institute of Geriatrics of Sherbrooke in Quebec reported that women who exercised outdoors showed fewer depressive symptoms than the indoor group. They also tended to become more active in their daily lives, while those who exercised indoors didn't change their activity levels during the three-month course of the study. All 23 women participating in the study were in their 50s or 60s and were sedentary prior to joining the study. The researchers assigned the women at random to outdoor or indoor exercise groups. Both groups met three times per week for sessions that included aerobic exercise and strength training. Before and after their workouts, the women were asked about their moods and how tiring they found the workouts. The researchers reported that on average, the women who exercised outdoors had a greater sense of tranquility after their sessions than did the women who exercised indoors. All told, the outdoor exercise participants attended 97 percent of the 36 sessions compared to 91 percent attendance in the indoor group.

My take? I have always found outdoor exercise to be much more enjoyable than indoor workouts. Nature provides better visual stimulation - particularly when you're exercising in pleasant surroundings, such as in a park or the countryside. You also get the benefit of fresh air and sunshine, which always makes me feel more cheerful and energetic. In addition to physical benefits, just spending time in nature itself has a measurable positive influence on health. Time outdoors can lower levels of cortisol, the hormone that rises when we're under stress. It can also lower blood pressure and pulse rate and trigger a dramatic increase in the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, important components of our immune defenses against infection and cancer.

Change Your Walk, Change Your Mood?

Did you know that your walk reflects your mood? Trudge along slump-shouldered and you appear depressed. Put a little pep in your step and you look happy. Interestingly, it appears the reverse may be true as well. Changing your walking style can affect your mood for better or worse, according to new research from Canada's Queen's University. Building on the knowledge that how we feel affects the way we walk, the investigators wanted to find out if changing the way we walk can affect mood. They put volunteers on treadmills and prompted some of them to walk in a depressed style and others to walk as if they were happy. To begin, the study participants were shown a list of positive and negative words such as "pretty," "afraid" and "anxious." While the volunteers were on the treadmill their gait and posture were tracked. After the treadmill test, the volunteers were asked to write down as many words as they remembered from the list they were shown earlier. The responses revealed that those whose walking style was depressed remembered more negative words, and that a depressed walking style did create a more depressed mood. Breaking this cycle might help with treatment of depressed patients, the researchers suggested.