Active body, nimble brain

University researchers found that an active lifestyle can keep the mind healthy in old age.

Sophomore Loralee Onstad runs on the track at the University's Recreation and Wellness Center on Tuesday.  New University of Minnesota research shows that cardiovascular exercise in youth helps preserve memory.

Holly Peterson

Sophomore Loralee Onstad runs on the track at the University’s Recreation and Wellness Center on Tuesday. New University of Minnesota research shows that cardiovascular exercise in youth helps preserve memory.

Allison Kronberg

Nearly half of the nation’s nursing home occupants are living with Alzheimer’s or other degenerative brain diseases — something young people may be able to avoid.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health found in a study released earlier this month that maintaining an active lifestyle as a youth may help preserve memory and other brain functions.

For about 30 years, the study has followed the activity levels and cognitive ability of more than 2,500 people, starting when they were between the ages of 18 and 30. Now, researchers are about to check in with participants for the ninth time.

Participants who could run longer on a treadmill when they were young were more likely to be able to answer memory questions and other brainteasers correctly 20 years later.

“The hope is to carry this through old age, which will give a glimpse of how youth affects old age,” study author and professor David Jacobs said.

Cardiovascular activities like running, bicycling and swimming are especially central to brain health, the study found. While the processes behind thinking aren’t well understood, Jacobs said, it’s known that the brain requires lots of oxygen to function optimally, and cardio workouts help the body deliver and preserve more oxygen.

Biomedical engineering sophomore Paul Borowick said he enjoys playing sports or lifting weights, but he admits that it’s sometimes hard to get motivated to do more intense weekly workouts.

“With weight lifting, whatever pain you feel is over quickly. But on a run, it’s 20, 30 minutes of consistent fatigue, which is a lot of times more draining than regular exercise,” he said. “I feel like I have to not go on a run for a solid month or two before I feel guilty enough to go on a run.”

University Recreation and Wellness fitness director Greg Stephenson said living an active lifestyle isn’t a “one size fits all” approach. Social sports, for example, may motivate some, while music motivates others, he said.

High-intensity activities can be performed anywhere, Stephenson said. Someone could sprint for short bursts during a jog, do several push-ups at a fast pace or increase the resistance of an elliptical while maintaining their speed — anything to increase their heart rate until they’re breathing heavy and breaking a sweat.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.

Jacobs said the study is most important for young people who have very low or no activity on a regular basis.

“The ‘use it or lose it’ principle applies to everyone; fitness is harder to recover the older one gets,” he said.

More than a quarter of University students reported zero to low activity level in 2013, according to the Boynton Student Health Survey.

Getting involved with family, school and community activities is a great way to ease into more physical activity, Jacobs said.

If a student wants to get more active, Stephenson said, they should review their daily routine to see if they can fill gaps with activity or modify a behavior to include exercise. Walking with a roommate, taking the stairs or participating in activities at the recreation center are all great ways to increase physical activity, he said.

“Students simply need to move,” Stephenson said. “That’s as good of a start as any.”

Borowick said he works out because it helps him relax and take his mind off school. He didn’t work out much his freshman year, but he committed to a routine this year.

“I’m no doctor,” he said, “but I think getting your blood flowing helps with a lot of things.”