Stop avoiding exercising your mind and body

Our minds and bodies are at their best when involved in action and activity, yet most people find themselves sitting at desks, repeating the same routines day after day. Our bodies, though, are much better suited to the physical demands of hunter –gatherer societies, or even the agrarian economies of a century or two ago.

Plowing the south forty behind an ox might not be the most attractive of occupations, but it does wonders for the heart and lungs.

We live in an amazing era in which financial security usually requires hours of sedentary activity, but in order to maintain physical health we are obliged to spend more hours at the gym.

The same thing holds true for our minds. Psychiatrist John Ratey writes about the relationship between exercise and brain functioning in his fascinating book, A Users Guide to the Brain.

Formal education and constant academic learning correlates with improved mental functioning at older ages. We are learning, growing creatures, and mental challenges are necessary to keep our brains healthy, yet most occupations do not require constant academic style learning.

The widespread use of television, video games and internet use tends to pacify our need for mental challenges, rather than satisfying it.

Healthy mental and physical aging seems to be a product of lifestyles that incorporate mental and physical challenges and activity. It seems that what we usually identity as signs of physical aging are controllable to a large degree. Things like physical strength; muscle mass, cholesterol levels, bone density and body fat are all subject to lifestyle habits, particularly exercise.

It does not seem to take much exercise to gain real benefits, either.

In Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, Deepak Chopra tells us about the research of Stephen Blair at the Institute for Aerobic Research. His findings show that mortality rates were about equal for people incorporating walking for half an hour a day and those who run thirty or forty miles per week.

The same thing seems to be true for maintaining mental abilities. In his excellent book on healthy cognitive aging, The Creative Age Gene Cohen tells us that points out that poets aged 65 and over are over-represented in collections of award winning poetry, and professional mathematicians tend to remain creative far into old age.

The ongoing study of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minnesota shows that intellectual challenges in old age stimulates the growth of dendrites in the brain, increasing neuron connections, countering the effects of aging, adding in recovery from strokes, and resisting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. (See A Users Guide to the Brain for details.)

It seems that countering the conditions of aging is straightforward — take a walk, read a book, stay involved. Actually integrating those habits, as simple as they are, is more challenging. Reading a book is easy, but finding the time for it is hard. How do we incorporate an hour a day into simply walking?

There are ways to do these things, but there is a cost.

I find exercise to be incredibly boring. I enjoy walking, but not enough to spend an hour doing it. Instead of listening to rock and roll while exercising, I listen to C-SPAN interviews or the excellent science podcasts from Big Picture Science.

I find out about so many innovative discoveries, books I need to read and ideas that captivate and motivate me. When I do this, I’m also motivating myself to exercise. I don’t look forward to getting sweaty and fatigued, but I can’t wait to hear the latest from Seth and Molly at Big Picture Science

(I’m probably one of the last people on earth who does not own a smart phone, so I use an old fashioned AGPtEK A20 PDA to listen to podcasts. I’m quite happy with it.)

Like so many other people, I own a TV. Unlike most others, however, I keep mine in a box at the back of a closet.

Simply forgoing TV gives me an incredible amount of time for more productive activities, and I find that I do not miss the TV trash that passes for culture at all. This comes at the cost of being out of touch with popular culture, however.

I do not have much to say when the people around me talk about the latest Kardashian controversy, or about how Katy Perry kissed a boy. In fact I probably would not be able to recognize Katy Perry if I saw her.

On the other hand, I am reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and can talk at length about the Federalist/Republican controversy of 1801. It is hard to slip that sort of thing into conversation, but it is more interesting and rewarding than discussing the extent of Katy’s latest new look. And I know my brain is better for it.

If you liked this article, you may enjoy the books mentioned in it:

Chopra, D. (1993). Ageless Body Timeless Mind. New York, NY: Random House

Cohen, G. (2001). The Creative Age. New York, NY: Harper Collins

Ratey, J. (2001). A Users Guide to the Brain. New York, NY: Random House