Exercise key to developing balance – but maybe not for reasons you think

You might think walking is a fairly straightforward, automatic task.

In actuality, walking makes the brain work pretty hard. It has to decipher sensory information, while maintaining balance and forward momentum.

Aerobic activity takes those processes up another notch.

So while longstanding wisdom holds that exercise is good for balance because it increases muscle strength in the lower limbs, anthropologist and exercise physiologist David Raichlen said research is showing that perhaps of equal or more importance in preventing falls is what exercise does to the brain.

David Raichlen UA School of Anthropology

David Raichlen
UA School of Anthropology

Raichlen, who will present at the Third Annual Conference on Successful Aging on Feb. 20, said studies indicate that exercise improves a set of higher-level cognitive functions, known as executive processes, which essentially give structure to our mental lives. Areas such as planning, strategizing or switching attention from one stimulus to another, all fall into this category.

The Conference is co-sponsored by Tucson Medical Center, which has supported the event since its inception. “Our mission is to educate the community to help them maintain optimal balance and fitness in all of its forms,” said L’Don Sawyer, director of TMC for Seniors. “Issues related to balance and gait are common concerns among the older adults we see in our health assessment clinic. The more resources and information we can get to older adults and their families, the better.”

Making lifestyle changes that include doing multiple tasks simultaneously will essentially exercise your executive functioning, which will in turn mitigate or reduce your fall risk, said Raichlen, an associate professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

“What we’re starting to find is that the diminishment of these functions is a strong predictor of falls,” Raichlen said. “It’s not uncommon if you try to do two things, like talking to someone while you’re walking, to experience subtle changes in gait, whether in pace or stride length. But if you have to greatly slow down or stop altogether to do both of those things at once, it’s a very good predictor of fall risk.”

Why do falls matter?

Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, as many as 30 percent of falls result in moderate to severe injuries that can increase the risk of early death or reduce the ability to live independently.

“One of the key areas of focus in the health care system now is how to prevent catastrophic problems in the first place, by preventing falls and preventing the changes in the brain that are associated with aging in a negative way,” he said. “Exercise is just about the best thing people can do to prevent these kinds of big problems as they get older.”

Raichlen is also an exercise physiologist, as an outcropping of his fascination with anthropology, and particularly at the ways in which movement seemed to lay the foundation for large evolutionary leaps.

“It turns out that the big changes that seem to explain why we are the way we are have to do with movement, from walking upright to our transition to endurance athletes,” Raichlen said. “By understanding our evolutionary history, it gives a nice context as to why aerobic exercise is so beneficial to the heart, the brain, the muscles and just about everything else.”

He recommends following the guidelines of the American Heart Association for aerobic activity, which aim for 30 minutes a day, five times a week, of moderate intensity.

Raichlen also recommends people visit Go4Life, a program from the National Institute of Aging, which provides comprehensive information on safety, exercise and nutrition. For more information, visit http://go4life.nia.nih.gov/ACOSA

The Annual Conference on Successful Aging takes place Friday, Feb. 20 from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tucson- Reid Park. The registration fee is $50. More information is available at www.psychology.arizona.edu/ACoSA.



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