By: Caroline Roberts
By: Caroline Roberts
In the world of health research, exercise is one of the few things that pretty much everyone agrees on.
Regular physical activity improves heart health, reduces your risk of cancer, keeps your bones healthy, improves mental health, and the list goes on.
But does it matter where you do your exercise? Will a gym work-out have the same health benefits as a bootcamp in a local park?
The bottom line is any exercise is better than no exercise, doctor and researcher Sandro Demaio tells ABC Life. So if exercising indoors works for you, stick with it.
“But there is some interesting evidence that running on a treadmill does not give the same mental health benefits as running outside, and it may not give you the same happy hormone boost as running outside,” Dr Demaio says.
“That makes sense because you’re not just running to improve your heart health and get the blood moving around the body and improve your fitness. You’re also outside seeing things, smelling things and getting fresh air. All those things will have an effect.”
It turns out, simply ‘being’ in a beautiful, natural environment really can benefit your mental health.
Levi Wade is a University of Newcastle PhD student studying the effects of outdoor exercise on mental health and cognition in teenagers.
“There’s a big evidence base on its effect on concentration and stress reduction. Those are the two big effects you’ll find,” Mr Wade says.
Broadly speaking, we can exert two different types of focus: hard and soft. Doing homework, checking over a spreadsheet, or crafting a pithy email all require hard focus.
Being immersed in a beautiful natural environment, on the other hand, can stimulate our soft focus. You might acknowledge the rustling of the leaves, or pay attention to the bird life.
Switching to soft focus allows your hard focus to recover: this is referred to as the restorative effect.
“If you’re walking in a forested environment or just somewhere that’s fascinating and beautiful, then a lot of the mechanism behind that effect on stress and mood is due to that environment taking your mind away from your own problems and whatever stress you are experiencing,” Mr Wade says.
“It’s just relaxing your mind because you’re not focusing on those thoughts.”
Much of the research around these benefits of outdoor exercise has been conducted on walking — specifically, walking in forested environments in Japan. It’s a popular activity there (not surprising given that 65 per cent of the country is covered in forest) and it’s termed shinrin-yoku, or “forest-bathing”.
One of the world’s leading shinrin-yoku researchers is Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki, who has been conducting research on the physiological relaxation effects of nature since the early 1990s.
“The most important thing is to make use of nature that you like,” he says.
“During our research, we found that even small elements of nature that you personally like, like plant aromas, flower arrangements, potted plants, or bonsai can have a physiological relaxation effect.”
Of course, sitting next to a potted plant for halfa won’t have the same effect on your health (physical or mental) as a 5k run. But if you’re feeling overworked, then taking some time away from the city is likely to make you feel better.
Exercising outdoors is also a great way to get your vitamin D, which you need for healthy bones, muscles and other vital body functions.
If you have fair skin you need roughly around 5–15 minutes of sun exposure a day, but this can vary depending on the time of year, and where in Australia you are.
For those with darker skin, or who have to cover their skin for religious or cultural beliefs, it can actually be tricky to get enough vitamin D through sunlight alone. So talk to your GP about your options and whether you need supplementation.
But the sun can also be the very thing that puts many of us off exercising outdoors.
So don’t forget to slip, slop, slap and slide if you’re going to be exercising at times when your chances of UV exposure are high.
As simple as it sounds, when it comes to choosing the best kind of exercise for you, the most important thing is to find something you actually like doing.
If you love going for a walk or run outdoors, then go for it.
“If you enjoy it you are so much more likely to stick to it and that is the most important thing,” explains Mr Wade.
But if you’ve already got your gym routine down pat, and the idea of venturing to your local beach is extremely off-putting, then it’s probably not worth forcing yourself into a change of habit.
This is general information only. For detailed personal advice, you should see a qualified medical practitioner who knows your medical history.
More and more studies are showing how regular exercise benefits the brain, and in particular, the aging brain. What’s less clear is how exactly exercise counters the cognitive decline that comes with aging and diseases like Alzheimer’s.
To find out, for nearly a decade, Ozioma Okonkwo, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and his colleagues have studied a unique group of middle-aged people at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Through a series of studies, the team has been building knowledge about which biological processes seem to change with exercise.
Okonkwo’s latest findings show that improvements in aerobic fitness mitigated one of the physiological brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s: the slowing down of how neurons breakdown glucose. The research, which has not been published yet, was presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association on Aug. 9.
Okonkwo works with the 1,500 people on the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP)—all of whom are cognitively normal, but have genes that put them at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or have one or two parents who have been diagnosed with the disease, or both. In the latest study, Okonkwo recruited 23 people from the WRAP population who were not physically active. Eleven were asked to participate in an exercise regimen to improve their aerobic fitness for six months, and 12 served as the control.
All had their brains scanned to track Alzheimer’s-related brain changes including differences in how neurons metabolized glucose, since in people with Alzheimer’s glucose breakdown slows. At the end of the study period, the group that exercised more showed higher levels of glucose metabolism and performed better on cognitive-function tests compared to the controls.
“We are carrying our research full circle and beginning to demonstrate some causality,” says Okonkwo about the significance of his findings.
In their previous work, he and his team identified a series of Alzheimer’s-related biological changes that seemed to be affected by exercise by comparing, retrospectively, people who were more physically active to those who were not.
In this study, they showed that intervening with an exercise regimen could actually affect these processes. Taken together, his body of research is establishing exactly how physical activity contributes to significant changes in the biological processes that drive Alzheimer’s, and may even reduce the effect of strong risk factors such as age and genes linked to higher risk of neurodegenerative disease.
For example, in their earlier work his group confirmed that as people age, the presence of Alzheimer’s-related brain changes increases—including the buildup of amyloid, slower breakdown of glucose by brain cells, shrinking of the volume of the hippocampus (central to memory), and declines in cognitive function measured in standard recall and recognition tests.
But they found that in people who reported exercising at moderate intensity at least 150 minutes a week, as public health experts recommend, brain scans showed that these changes were significantly reduced and in some cases non-existent compared to people who were not active. “The association between age and Alzheimer’s brain changes was blunted,” says Okonkwo, “Even if [Alzheimer’s] got worse, it didn’t get worse at the same speed or rate among those who are physically active as in those who are inactive.”
In another previous study, they found the benefits of exercise in controlling Alzheimer’s processes even among those with genetic predisposition for the disease. When they divided the participants by fitness levels, based on a treadmill test and their ability to efficiently take in oxygen, they found that being fit nearly negated the effect of the deleterious gene ApoE4. “It’s a remarkable finding because it’s not something that was predicted,” says Okonkwo.
In yet another previous study, Okonkwo and his team also found that people with higher aerobic fitness showed lower amounts of white matter hyperintensities, brain changes that are signs of neuron degeneration and show up as brighter spots on MRI images (hence the name). White matter hyperintensities tend to increase in the brain with age, and are more common in people with dementia or cognitive impairment.
They form as neurons degrade and the myelin that surrounds their long-reaching arms—which helps nerves communicate with each other effectively—starts to deteriorate. In people with dementia, that process happens faster than normal, leading to an increase in white matter hyperintensities. Okonwko found that people who were more aerobically fit showed lower amounts of these hyperintensities than people who were less fit.
Given the encouraging results from his latest study of 23 people that showed intervening with exercise can change some of the Alzheimer’s-related brain changes of the disease, he plans to expand his small study to confirm the positive effect that exercise and better fitness can have in slowing the signs of Alzheimer’s. Already, his work has inspired a study launched earlier this year and funded by the National Institutes of Health that includes brain scans to track how physical activity affects biological factors like amyloid and glucose in people at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
The cumulative results show that “there may be certain things we are born with, and certain things that we can’t change ]when it comes to Alzheimer’s risk], but a behavior like physical exercise might help us to modify that,” says Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.
By Alice Park
Think for a moment about your school gym classes. Did you just grin with fond reminiscence or reflexively shudder? A revealing new study suggests that these disparate responses to memories of physical education classes are both common and consequential.
How we felt during gym classes years or decades ago may shape how we feel about exercise today and whether we choose to be physically active, the study finds. The result may have implications for our understanding of exercise motivation and also for how we should introduce our children to sports and movement.
About two-thirds of adults in the Western world rarely if ever exercise, health statistics tell us. There are many reasons so many of us are sedentary, but most behavioral scientists agree that our attitudes about exercise play a defining role. If we expect exercise to be fun and enjoyable, we often will exercise. If not, we won’t.
How we develop these beliefs about physical activity has been unclear, though. So a group of scientists at Iowa State University in Ames began to wonder recently whether our feelings about moving might have roots in gym classes, which are often the first introduction many of us have to formal exercise.
To find out, they created a specialized and lengthy online questionnaire that asked people to ruminate on and rate their memories of gym class and how they felt about exercise now, using an elaborate numerical scale.
The questionnaire also asked people about their physical activity habits today and how much time they spent in motion or in a chair, especially on weekends.Perhaps most compelling, the online form invited them to describe, in their own words, their single best or worst memory from a P.E. class and write about it in as much detail as they chose.
The researchers posted the questionnaire on a website devoted to academic studies and invited anyone interested to complete the form. They wound up with responses from more than a thousand men and women aged between 18 and 40.
Completing the form seems to have been cathartic for these respondents, given the depth and specificity of many of their responses. People’s memories of gym class turned out to be in fact surprisingly “vivid and emotionally charged,” the researchers write in the study, which was published this month in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.
And those memories had long shadows, affecting people’s exercise habits years later. The most consistent associations were between unpleasant memories of P.E. classes and lingering resistance to exercise years later, the researchers found. People who had not enjoyed gym class as children tended to report that they did not expect to like exercise now and did not plan to exercise in the coming days.
People who had found pleasure in gym class, on the other hand, were more likely to report that they expected exercise to be enjoyable and that they were active on weekends. The reasons people gave for enjoying gym — or not — were also telling. Many said that they had hated being chosen late or last for sports teams, or felt embarrassed about bumbling sports performances.
Quite a few also reported discomfort undressing in front of other students, and some described bullying and insults, including from gym teachers.Many also said they had dreaded the fitness tests that are common in P.E. programs.Of course, some people harbored pleasant memories of gym classes, often involving athletic success and competence.
“It was a bit surprising just how strong people’s memories were” of their P.E. classes, says Matthew Ladwig, a graduate student at Iowa State University who conducted the study with Panteleimon Ekkekakis and Spyridoula Vazou.
“For some of them, the classes were two or three decades in the past, but they had not forgotten,” he says, and their memories apparently continued to color their attitudes toward exercise today.
The people involved in this study, though, were a self-chosen group who happened to see the questionnaire, so their responses may not be typical of everyone’s. The results also rely on memories and recall, which can be unreliable. And the findings may have been influenced by reverse causation, meaning that unathletic young people disliked gym class and grew up to be sedentary because they were not athletic, and not because they did not like P.E.
But the results do remind us that how we feel about exercise is important in prompting us to move or remain still and that, in order to instill positive attitudes toward exercise, we may want to rethink some of the emphases in school-based physical education programs, Mr. Ladwig says.
If sports are involved, “choose teams randomly,” he says, and, for younger children, de-emphasize competition altogether, promoting activities like dancing or yoga instead.
Consider, too, downplaying frequent fitness testing, which demoralized so many study respondents, he says. Maybe also offer children more options, including unconventional ones. “Gardening is physical activity and some kids might love it a lot more than team sports,” he says. “It would be great,” he concludes, “if P.E. classes could teach kids that moving is fun.”
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