running

An active lifestyle might help improve both physical and mental health.

If you watched any of the Richmond Marathon last weekend, you likely noticed how many of the participants were sporting gray hair along with their running togs. As the American population ages, many adults in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are living active lifestyles, running marathons, volunteering and even continuing to work full time. Even growing numbers of nonagenarians are staying fit and continuing to live independently.

It’s long been recognized that staying active has incalculable health benefits — and not just for seniors. Regular exercise can help maintain weight, improve balance, strengthen bones and muscles and help prevent heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. And growing research shows that regular aerobic exercise also can play a role in keeping you mentally healthy as well.

But one doesn’t need to run a marathon to achieve those health benefits. According to a study released earlier this month by Boston University’s School of Medicine, even 10 minutes of exercise a day can help sharpen mental prowess. Researchers found that both middle-aged and older people who participated in 10 to 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day showed better brain function. The middle-aged group experienced improved verbal memory and the older group recorded stronger mental skills.

With the plethora of physical and mental health benefits, maintaining even a modest exercise program should be a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately, no. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says only 24% of Americans are exercising enough. The CDC’s guidelines suggest adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or a mix of the two. Fewer than 23% of adults are meeting this goal. Even our kids aren’t getting an adequate amount of exercise — most spend less than an hour a day engaged in physical activity.

That’s a problem, both physically and mentally. Our bodies and our brains have been “fine-tuned for endurance activities over millennia of stalking and chasing down prey.” That’s according to Charles Hillman, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, who has devoted much of his career to studying the link between exercise and cognition. Today’s sedentary lifestyle is exacting a heavy toll on both mind and body. And the impact will be worse for our kids. Hillman says that for the first time in American history, “younger generations are expected to live shorter, unhealthier lives than their parents.”

That’s a concerning prediction and one of the best incentives we’ve seen to encourage the entire family to get moving. Not everyone wants or needs to run a marathon, but there are plenty of other things one can do to get in shape. Just get moving.

— Robin Beres

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