Don’t forget to exercise the gray matter


Keep a sharp mind as you enter your ‘Golden Years'


Shriveled brain shown on Homer Simpson's x-rayMost of us have heard “Use it or lose it” or “Practice makes perfect”, both of which are a call to action. The action need not be physical, however – your mind needs exercise as well.

Your memories define the person you've become, and shape your future actions. The greatest dieting and exercising regimens may keep your body healthy and fit as you age, but if you don't spend time exercising your mind as well, your ability to cope with life and reflect on cherished memories could both disappear.

By fatiguing your muscles – even to the point of failure – you can encourage your body to strengthen and build new muscle mass. By continually stressing bones with weight bearing exercises, you can encourage the bones to maintain bone density. In both cases, you benefit tremendously in your golden years, both in terms of longevity and quality of life.

But your brain is a different beast; it cannot grow new cells as you age. What is the purpose of ‘exercising' your brain then? And how do you go about exercising your brain?

Dad playing with child on the beachIt's true that your brain doesn't grow new cells, but it is also true that your brain has vast amounts of unused capacity. If you begin brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, you'll be clumsy at first, but then your brain will re-wire itself to facilitate off-handed tooth brushing. The same holds true of applying makeup, brushing your hair, tying your shoes, etc. These few examples should give you an example of the feats your brain capable of.

Now add to those examples crossword and Sudoku puzzles, strategy games such as go, chess, or bridge and a host of other activities – many of which also encourage social interaction. Some also promote abstract thought processes or limber up your problem solving capability; all are food for your brain.  You could even do something relatively mindless, something you haven't done for years – build a sandcastle, fly a kite, play horseshoes.

There are a few ideas off the top of my head. What do you think? Leave a comment below; you'll get extra credit for exercising your brain!

Dieting versus Exercising to lose weight

If you're interested in losing weight, dieting may immediately spring to mind as the best way to slim down. Before you pick out a diet, you should consider how most dieting efforts play out.

Couple dancing, from body burns calories all the time, whether you're sleeping, working, or playing – although your burn rate can be much higher while working or playing. Makes sense, right? Your body's ‘base' burn rate, or basal metabolic rate, is related to your total muscle mass, which is somewhat related to your weight. In other words, if you're overweight, your body will maintain enough muscle to move your body around for normal day to day activities. Keep in mind that we're not talking about strenuous activity here – just moving from the couch to the refrigerator, for example.

If you lose weight by dieting, you need less muscle for your couch potato lifestyle, and your muscle mass decreases accordingly. As you lose muscle mass, your ‘base' burn rate decreases, until your weight, muscle mass, and caloric intake all come into balance again. Good job! You've lost weight, right? High fives all around??

If all you want to do is slim down and look good around the office or at a high school reunion, congratulations – mission accomplished. Keep your caloric intake down and you'll maintain your balance between overall weight, muscle mass, and diet.

Note that if you'd like to go dancing, play a game of volleyball, or participate in a fun-raising 5K run, you'll need to step up your activity level a notch with an exercise program. As you begin to exercise, try to reduce your caloric intake, even just a bit. Your exercising will help maintain or even build muscle mass (depending on the type of exercise program you choose), even as you lose weight. If you exercise regularly, you'll be able to enjoy your new lifestyle without having to stop and catch your breath.

If you're goal is to live longer and to maintain a higher quality of life long into your golden years, however, you need to know about things that happen as you age – loss of bone density and loss of muscle mass. You can address the loss of bone density by engaging in weight bearing exercises, and you can maintain or increase your muscle mass by stressing your muscles. By that I mean that while cardio exercises are good and necessary (walking, swimming, bicycling, etc), you also need to exercise your muscles to the point of failure to ‘encourage' more muscle growth.

I don't want to re-invent the wheel, so let me suggest that you watch a five minute video, and leapfrog from it to a webinar that explains the physiology of muscle growth. Take a look, and let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below!