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Health & Exercise Forum

National Physical Therapy Month - Exercise Your Mind and Body

Oct 8, 2012

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumUSE IT OR LOOSE IT - EXERCISE MIND AND BODY!

October is National Physical Therapy Month! Physical therapists are excited about new research which reinforces what we have all suspected; physical activity improves cognitive function and mental activity improves physical function.

Mariel Consagra, a local teacher, discovered this research while assisting her husband, Atty. Charles “Chuck” Consagra, during his recovery from brain surgery two years ago. Chuck has worked hard in physical therapy at our clinic and has had a tremendous recovery, which he credits to his mind – body exercise.

The new research is encouraging for older individuals who report losses in flexibility, strength, and balance that interfere with walking and other simple daily activities. In this population, physical decline is typically accompanied by a mental decline causing difficulty with learning new tasks, following instructions, planning, organizing, multi-tasking, reasoning, and remembering.  Safety often becomes an issue.  Reduced mental and physical function can eventually impair their ability to live independently requiring extra care from loved ones or placement in an assisted living facility or nursing home.

In our clinic, we have been fortunate to work with a few exceptions to the rule of aging and support the current studies. Some of you may know Gino Mori, MD at age 80 continues to take classes at the University of Scranton while his brother, Hugo Mori, MD at age 77 plays tennis every day. These “elite” elders, and others like them, defy their age and are in surprisingly great shape!  Typically, these individuals report daily physical exercise (e.g. walking, dancing, golfing, tennis, skiing, and swimming) as well as regular mental activity (e.g. reading, sculpting, painting, completing crossword puzzles, and playing memory games).  Many of these individuals participate in social events, travel with family and friends, continue to work, and volunteer their time for a worthy cause, all of which require physical and mental effort.

Our current “push-button world” with its modern conveniences has caused a real health crisis.  Many people live inactive lifestyles which deteriorate their vascular systems and result in a physical and mental decline.  Computer games, television shows, and video games contribute to our society’s slothful, stationary lives.  What happened to the old “use it or lose it” philosophy?

Physical activity improves cognitive function!  Inactive individuals are twice as likely to develop dementia for several reasons. Physical exercise not only develops new blood vessels in the brain but also increases blood flow to this essential organ. Exercise that improves the heart’s ability to pump blood (i.e. cardiovascular exercise) also enhances the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.  Improved blood flow to the brain promotes energy production and waste removal.  People with heart disease and high blood pressure have reduced mental capacities partly due to reduced blood flow to the brain.  Physical exercise also stimulates the production of new brain cells, develops more connections between brain cells, and improves the function of the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for learning and memory and implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.  Moreover, the “excess is best” theory applies:  a Canadian study revealed that the more a person exercises the greater the protective benefits for the brain, especially in women.

Mental stimulation enhances physical ability! A fascinating experiment was performed at the Cleveland Clinic in which participants were able to strengthen a muscle by just imagining that they were exercising it!  After just 12 weeks, these volunteers demonstrated gains in muscle strength up to 35% and scans of their brains revealed increased activity.  Mental exercise also improves physical coordination by reducing deterioration of the basal ganglia, an area of the brain responsible for voluntary movement and implicated in Parkinson’s disease.

Challenging your mind and body- Try Something new! The physical and cognitive decline associated with the aging process is not inevitable and is reversible!  At any age, muscles and bones continually remodel and brains constantly adapt, rewire, and develop new connections in response to “exercise”, but challenging your mind and body is the “key” to preventing declines in physical and mental function.  Performing a particular activity, mental or physical, on a regular basis causes our bodies and brains to become efficient at that task.  This means that our bodies and brains will complete the known task with very little effort and no “learning” will occur.  Leave your comfort zone and engage your mind and body by learning something new or doing something different!

The “mind-body connection” demonstrates that “exercising” through “learning” a new task simultaneously benefits your body and brain.  Our bodies and minds thrive, especially in older age, when challenged with new experiences and unique situations.  Most importantly, practice balance!  Learn new activities that “test” your body and try novel tasks that challenge your mind.

Recommendations to Strengthen Your Mind:

  • Use your non-dominant hand to perform a routine task (e.g. brush your teeth or dial the phone)
  • Reduce sensory input: Get dressed/ wash your hair with your eyes closed
  • Combine two senses:
    • Listen to music and smell flowers
    • Listen to rain and tap your fingers
  • Break routines:
    • Drive to work along a new route
    • Shop at a different store
    • Learn a new language
    • Start a new hobby
  • If you walk for exercise:
    • Follow a different route
    • Swing your arms
    • Increase your speed
    • Walk some hills
  • Try a new physical activity instead of walking:
    • Swimming
    • Dancing
    • Tai Chi
    • Golfing
    • Low impact aerobics
  • Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

CONTRIBUTING AUTHOR: Janet Caputo, PT, DPT, OCS is clinical director of physical therapy at Mackarey & Mackarey Physical Therapy Consultants, LLC in downtown Scranton where she practices orthopedic and neurological physical therapy.

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum!” in the Scranton Times-Tribune.

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice in Scranton, PA. He is an associate clinical professor of medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College. This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email: