Features September 2011 Issue

Exercise Protects the Brain and Blood Vessels

Study reveals that physical activity may help protect against “silent strokes.”

Researchers have discovered even more reasons for older adults to start an exercise program. According to a study published in the June 14 issue of Neurology, participants who regularly exercised at a moderate to intense level were much less likely to develop “silent strokes” or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) than those who didn’t exercise regularly or who engaged in relatively light exercise, such as golf and walking.

“Recently, researchers have been paying more attention to how exercise can improve brain health,” says Michael Crawford, MS, supervisor of cardiac rehab in Preventive Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic. “Factors that negatively impact brain and vascular health are high blood pressure and diabetes, which can lead to brain cell death and the build up of plaque in the arteries.” In a separate study, presented at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in June, regular exercise was shown to be the key to the prevention of atherosclerosis, even among patients who were also receiving intensive lipid and glucose management through medication and diet.

“Exercise helps to reduce blood pressure and improve diabetes control to reduce the risk of vascular dementia or other vascular problems, such as peripheral arterial disease,” Crawford says. “There are many current research trials going on to address how exercise affects medical conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Some evidence suggests that exercise helps to improve blood flow and oxygen to brain cells, leading to the reduction in these and other conditions.”

Starting an Exercise Program
“To ensure safety, a person with a heart condition should first tell their physician that they would like to begin an exercise program,” Crawford says. “Some places also have exercise physiologists or exercise specialists who can help design a safe and effective activity program to help meet a person’s goals. For some people, an exercise stress test may be appropriate to determine safety. An exercise program, just like any other lifestyle change, takes some work, planning, and dedication to be successful.”

Ideally, exercise should be five days per week for at least 30 minutes at a moderate intensity. Because this involves a time commitment and a person is adding a new stress to the body, Crawford recommends starting out with three days per week for about 15 to 20 minutes, then progressively adding two to three minutes every one to two weeks, as your body and lifestyle are getting used to the new exercise. He notes that some people will progress faster than others.

Many health-related benefits of exercise, such as lowering blood pressure, helping to control blood sugar, weight reduction, and improvements in cholesterol can be achieved by moderate levels of exercise. Setting and sticking to a target heart rate range is ideal, and this should be determined by a doctor or exercise professional as there are different methods to calculate a target heart rate range, and some medicines or health conditions will affect the range.

According to Crawford, a more subjective way to measure exercise intensity is for a person to think of how hard the exercise feels to them. “If you imagine a zero to ten scale, where zero is as if a person is lying down resting and ten is a maximum effort, the activity should feel like a three or four, or moderate to somewhat heavy,” he says. “Finding an activity that a person enjoys, having an exercise partner, or making exercise family fun time are all ways to help an exercise program be successful.”