Simple way to IMPROVE brain and heart health, bombshell studies reveal the truth about exercise

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exercise-protects-heart-and-brain(NaturalHealth365)  With the large population of Baby Boomers heading into their “golden years,” researchers are increasingly focused on strategies to protect heart and brain function into old age.  After all, heart disease – which claims close to 700,000 lives yearly – is the leading cause of death in the United States for older adults.  In addition, as the population ages, rates of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease are soaring.  Experts predict that the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s will skyrocket from almost 6 million to well over 13 million by the year 2050.

Now, two new – and unrelated – studies suggest that very brief exercise intervals can have a surprisingly powerful impact on health, even helping to ward off heart conditions and Alzheimer’s disease. Let’s look at the intriguing research evaluating the effects of exercise mini-sessions, or – as researchers term them – exercise “snacks.”

Wait, what?!  A mere six minutes of exercise enhances cognitive performance

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand and published in the Journal of Physiology, researchers found that six minutes of high-intensity exercise produced a protein that enhances learning and boosts cognitive performance and memory.  The protein, known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), promotes the ability of the brain to form new pathways essential for learning and memory – and can even protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline.

To conduct the study – which involved healthy, active adults aged 18 to 56 – the researchers compared the effects of various interventions, including fasting for 20 hours; light but prolonged exercise (90 minutes of gentle cycling); a short period of high-intensity physical activity (six minutes of vigorous cycling) and a combination of fasting and exercise.

Short, intense bouts of exercise were most effective in increasing BDNF

The results were eye-opening.  The scientists found that six minutes of brief but vigorous exercise was most successful by far at increasing BDNF, ramping it up by four- to five-fold.  The team concluded that this technique could help extend the lifespan of a healthy brain and even delay the onset of serious neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers were unsure exactly why the short exercise session was so successful at increasing BDNF.  They speculated it might be due to an increase in blood platelets or by the body’s transition from consuming glucose to lactate during the exercise session.  While fasting for 20 hours didn’t increase BDNF in this study, the researchers maintained that intermittent fasting could be another successful method for “steering the brain away” from metabolizing glucose exclusively.

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They theorized that a combination of fasting and exercise could optimize BDNF production even further and noted that research on the subject is underway.

New research shows brief physical activity can improve heart health

Multiple studies have shown that prolonged sitting is harmful to health, leading some scientists to refer to sitting as “the new smoking.” (Alarmingly, lengthy sitting can be hazardous to health, even in individuals who exercise regularly!)

A new randomized crossover trial conducted by researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (CUVCPS) and published online in the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine shows that five minutes of walking every half hour during periods of prolonged sitting can alleviate harmful effects of inactivity while increasing mood and energy levels.  Researchers tested varied intervals of walking and sitting and found that exercise “snacks” of five minutes every 30 minutes were optimal.

Exercise “snacks” improved blood sugar and blood pressure

To conduct the study, participants – all middle- to older-aged adults – sat in ergonomic chairs for eight-hour intervals, arising only for their prescribed exercise “snacks.” Researchers discovered that a five-minute walk every half hour significantly lowered participants’ blood pressure and blood sugar.  In fact, the routine reduced harmful blood sugar “spikes” by a surprising 58 percent (when compared to sitting all day).

Study leader Keith Diaz, PhD, associate professor of behavioral medicine at CUVCPS, reported that the decreases in blood pressure were comparable to the reduction one would expect from exercising daily for six months. “Even small amounts of walking spread throughout the workday can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses,” Dr. Diaz noted.

Of course, exercise’s anti-aging, neuroprotective effects aren’t exactly a secret.  Multiple studies have suggested that regular aerobic exercises, such as walking and cycling, increases the size of the hippocampus, the region of the brain that handles memory.  Still, other studies have linked regular walking with a reduced risk of major depression.

Research published in JAMA found a 51 percent lower mortality risk for those who took 8,000 steps a day compared with those who took half of that.  And a study involving obese women showed that power walkers in the group were able to reduce harmful abdominal and visceral fat, cutting their risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

While more research may be helpful, the two new studies shine a light on the potential of short periods of exercise to increase well-being and prolong life.  So, instead of reaching for a snack after a period of sitting, it may be a good idea to opt for an “exercise snack” instead.  Your body will thank you for the effort.

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