1. Making healthier decisions, step by step

    October 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the San Diego State University press release:

    Nobody wakes up expecting they’ll make unhealthy choices, but the daily grind can compromise our otherwise healthy intentions: fast food instead of a home-cooked meal because we’re exhausted; driving instead of walking to the grocery store because it’s more convenient. But what if life came with little reminders to make healthy choices? To address that question, researchers from San Diego State University looked at whether a simple sign could encourage airport visitors to take the stairs rather than the escalator.

    Even small amounts of activity can have important health benefits, particularly for Americans who sit most of the day, said the study’s first author, John Bellettiere, an SDSU alumnus currently working as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego. He is researching ways to boost physical activity at the population-level to help people “sit less and move more.”

    For 10 non-consecutive days, a team led by SDSU public health researchers Yael BenPorat, Brent Bishop and Melbourne Hovell posted one of five signs at the bottom of a set of stairs and escalators ascending to a sky bridge into San Diego International Airport’s Terminal 1. The signs read:

      • -“Please reserve the escalator for those who need it.”

    -“Don’t lose time, lose weight. Use the Stairs.”

    -“Don’t waste Time, trim your Waistline. Use the Stairs.”

    -“You’ll get more stares if you use the stairs.”

    -“If you want to feel younger, act younger. Step it up! Use the stairs.”

    On alternating days, they posted no signs at all. The researchers counted how many people took the stairs versus the escalator on the sign days and no-sign days. They also interviewed people atop the stairs about their health history and physical activity levels.

    When one of the signs was present, about twice as many people took the stairs compared to a no-sign day, the researchers reported recently in the Journal of Primary Prevention. The most important finding: The prompts appeared to nudge both people who regularly exercised and those who never exercised, explained study coauthor Natasha Bliss, an alumna of the SDSU Graduate School of Public Health and current associate director of development for the university’s College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts.

    “We saw the effect even when people were carrying luggage, even when they were in a rush,” Bellettiere said. “It’s the first time this kind of effect has been shown at an airport.”

    Encouraging even small amounts of exercise is important, Bellettiere added, because of its compounding effect in people’s lives: If they take the stairs early in the day, they may make similar healthy choices later in the day. Also, when people see others taking the stairs, they are more likely to do so themselves, creating a ripple effect.

    “These nudges are small environmental changes that can really help boost physical activity in the population,” Bellettiere said.


  2. Study examines sleep problems in young people

    October 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the James Cook University press release:

    A collaborative research project involving James Cook University and the University of Queensland indicates high rates of sleep problems continuing through teenage years and into early adulthood — but also suggests a natural remedy.

    Dr. Yaqoot Fatima from JCU’s Mount Isa Centre for Rural and Remote Health was associated with a study that tracked more than 3600 people from the age of 14 until they were 21.

    “Just over a quarter of the 14-year-olds reported sleep problems, with more than 40 percent of those still having sleep problems at 21,” said Dr. Fatima.

    She said the causes of sleep problems were different at different ages.

    Maternal factors, such as drug abuse, smoking, depression and anxiety among mothers are the most significant predictors of adolescent sleep problems in their children, at 14-years-old. For all people studied, being female, having experienced early puberty, and being a smoker were the most significant predictors of sleep problems at 21 years.”

    She said adolescent depression or anxiety were linking factors for sleep problems between the two ages.

    “It’s a vicious circle. Depression and anxiety are well-established risk factors for sleep problems and people with sleep problems are often anxious or depressed,” she said.

    Dr. Fatima said that as well as the traditional factors, excessive use of electronic media is emerging as another significant risk.

    “In children and adolescents, it’s found to be strongly associated with later bedtime and shorter sleep duration, increasing the risk of developing sleep disturbances,” she said.

    Dr. Fatima said the study was worrying as it revealed a high incidence of persistent sleep problems and possible concurrent health problems among young people — but it also strongly suggested an answer to the problem.

    “Even allowing for Body Mass Index and other lifestyle factors, we found that an active lifestyle can decrease future incidence and progression of sleep problems in young subjects. So, early exercise intervention with adolescents might provide a good opportunity to prevent their sleep problems persisting into later life.”

    She said the next study being considered would look at what factors lead to young adults’ sleep problems continuing as they grow older and how that might be prevented.


  3. Study suggests exercise can help with depression prevention

    October 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of New South Wales press release:

    A landmark study led by the Black Dog Institute has revealed that regular exercise of any intensity can prevent future depression — and just one hour can help.

    Published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the results show even small amounts of exercise can protect against depression, with mental health benefits seen regardless of age or gender.

    In the largest and most extensive study of its kind, the analysis involved 33,908 Norwegian adults who had their levels of exercise and symptoms of depression and anxiety monitored over 11 years.

    The international research team found that 12 percent of cases of depression could have been prevented if participants undertook just one hour of physical activity each week.

    “We’ve known for some time that exercise has a role to play in treating symptoms of depression, but this is the first time we have been able to quantify the preventative potential of physical activity in terms of reducing future levels of depression,” said lead author Associate Professor Samuel Harvey from Black Dog Institute and UNSW.

    “These findings are exciting because they show that even relatively small amounts of exercise — from one hour per week — can deliver significant protection against depression.

    “We are still trying to determine exactly why exercise can have this protective effect, but we believe it is from the combined impact of the various physical and social benefits of physical activity.

    “These results highlight the great potential to integrate exercise into individual mental health plans and broader public health campaigns. If we can find ways to increase the population’s level of physical activity even by a small amount, then this is likely to bring substantial physical and mental health benefits.”

    The findings follow the Black Dog Institute’s recent Exercise Your Mood campaign, which ran throughout September and encouraged Australians to improve their physical and mental wellbeing through exercise.

    Researchers used data from the Health Study of Nord-Trøndelag County (HUNT study) — one of the largest and most comprehensive population-based health surveys ever undertaken — which was conducted between January 1984 and June 1997.

    A healthy cohort of participants was asked at baseline to report the frequency of exercise they participated in and at what intensity: without becoming breathless or sweating, becoming breathless and sweating, or exhausting themselves. At follow-up stage, they completed a self-report questionnaire (the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale) to indicate any emerging anxiety or depression.

    The research team also accounted for variables which might impact the association between exercise and common mental illness. These include socio-economic and demographic factors, substance use, body mass index, new onset physical illness and perceived social support.

    Results showed that people who reported doing no exercise at all at baseline had a 44% increased chance of developing depression compared to those who were exercising one to two hours a week.

    However, these benefits did not carry through to protecting against anxiety, with no association identified between level and intensity of exercise and the chances of developing the disorder.

    According to the Australian Health Survey, 20 percent of Australian adults do not undertake any regular physical activity, and more than a third spend less than 1.5 hours per week being physically active. At the same time, around 1 million Australians have depression, with one in five Australians aged 16-85 experiencing a mental illness in any year.

    “Most of the mental health benefits of exercise are realised within the first hour undertaken each week,” said Associate Professor Harvey.

    “With sedentary lifestyles becoming the norm worldwide, and rates of depression growing, these results are particularly pertinent as they highlight that even small lifestyle changes can reap significant mental health benefits.”


  4. Study suggests increased physical activity among breast cancer survivors boosts cognition

    October 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Diego press release:

    It is estimated that up to 75 percent of breast cancer survivors experience problems with cognitive difficulties following treatments, perhaps lasting years. Currently, few science-based options are available to help. In the journal Cancer, University of California San Diego School of Medicine researchers report in a pilot study of 87 female breast cancer survivors, an increase in physical activity more than doubled the women’s post-treatment mental processing speed.

    In a 12-week, randomized trial, half the women were enrolled in a physical activity intervention program tailored to each person’s interests and abilities and incorporating wearable activity devices, while the other half were assigned to a control group that received emails addressing women’s health topics, healthy eating, stress reduction and general brain health.

    “Whether or not they receive chemotherapy, many breast cancer survivors experience a decline in brain function that impacts memory, thinking and concentration,” said Sheri Hartman, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and co-director of the diet and physical activity shared resource at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. “The women who participated in the physical activity intervention experienced a significant improvement in cognitive processing speed and some improvements in their perceived mental abilities. This study supports the idea that exercise could be a way to help improve cognition among breast cancer survivors.”

    The study tested changes in cognition using both National Institutes of Health (NIH) Toolbox Cognition Domain, a computer-based test of cognitive abilities, and the Patient Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System for self-reporting brain function abilities and problems in all patients at the start and end of the 12-week period. This is the first completed randomized controlled trial using both a test of cognition and a self-reported method to assess the impact of physical activity on cancer survivors.

    In the tests, women in the exercise arm showed more than double the improvements in processing speed, which measures how fast information can be taken in and used, compared to the control group. Looking closer, women in the intervention arm who were two years or less from diagnosis were four times more likely to show improvement in this area.

    “This is a preliminary study, but it appears that intervening closer to diagnosis may be important to having an impact, and this is the population we may need to target,” said Hartman.

    Women in the intervention arm also had three times the improvements in self-report cognition abilities compared to the control group.

    While the tests evaluated several aspects of cognition, only speed processing showed a significant improvement. Researchers recommend larger and longer trials evaluating the necessary duration of exercise and intensity of activities to determine if increased physical activity might impact other aspects of cognition.

    Before the start of the study, all participants wore a research-grade accelerometer on their hips for seven days to measure physical activity at baseline and again for the last seven days of the trial to compare changes in minutes of moderately intense activity.

    During the study period, women in the exercise arm wore a Fitbit One activity tracker. Data collected was sent to researchers to extract activity levels and to provide feedback and encouragement to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week, as recommended by the NIH. Researchers provided support through phone calls and emails.

    “Survivors often report that their thinking is slower or feels more foggy. The brain just doesn’t work at the same level as before cancer treatment,” said Hartman. “By providing a program with support, women are more likely to make difficult behavioral changes that lead to an increase in physical activity.”

    The intervention program led to an approximately 100-minute increase in weekly physical activity in the participants in the exercise arm.

    Participants were enrolled in the study between February 2015 and July 2016. To be eligible, women needed to be between 21 and 85 years of age and have been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer no more than five years before enrollment in the study. Participants were predominantly well-educated, non-Hispanic white women. Future research in cancer populations with greater diversity is needed, the authors said.


  5. Physical activity in midlife not linked to cognitive fitness in later years

    September 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health press release:

    A study led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers that tracked activity levels of 646 adults over 30 years found that, contrary to previous research, exercise in mid-life was not linked to cognitive fitness in later years.

    The finding suggests that physical activity may not help maintain cognitive function, or help avoid or delay the onset of the debilitating conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s affects as many as 30 million, mostly older people throughout the world. With no known treatment or cure, researchers are trying to identify measures that might help delay Alzheimer’s onset or limit its reach.

    The study, which appears online in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, did find that activity levels among study participants in the later years were associated with high cognitive function two years later. This supports earlier research findings that exercise may help to maintain cognitive fitness in the short term.

    “This study reminds us that physical activity has all sorts of benefits for people, including promoting cardiovascular health, managing optimal weight levels and maintaining bone and muscle mass,” says Alden L. Gross, assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Epidemiology. “Unfortunately it is too early for us to say the same about exercise and Alzheimer’s, especially as a possible long-term preventive measure.”

    There is no known treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia, syndromes that involves declining memory, confusion and eventually limited ability to perform daily tasks. To date, there are no preventive measures, such as physical exercise, brain games or a diet regimen, that have been proven to help delay or altogether prevent its onset. In the US, an estimated five million adults are currently living with Alzheimer’s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the CDC predicts that this number will rise to 14 million by 2050.

    The researchers undertook the study because of a growing consensus that physical activity levels helps prevent Alzheimer’s, however much of the evidence for this thinking is based on cross-sectional studies that compare responses from one group of participants with another at a given point in time or within a very short duration, typically several years. Such studies can be valuable for confirming associations, or links, but not at establishing actual causation because of what is known as reverse causation: it is possible that people who eventually develop dementia may reduce their physical activity and exercise as dementia advances. That’s where longitudinal studies, which look at the same group of participants over a long time, are more helpful.

    The researchers used data from the Johns Hopkins Precursors study, which registered students studying at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine between 1948 and 1964 and tracked them with annual questionnaires about their overall health. The researchers note that the cohort’s homogeneity — students at a selective medical school — meant that any differences in physical activity and later cognitive function could not be explained by other differences among participants.

    The median age for study participants was 46 years in 1978 and 77 years in 2008. Every several years, the questionnaire asked about exercise, physical activity and physical limitations. The researchers used responses from 1978 through 2008 from 646 participants (598 men, 48 women) to calculate so-called metabolic equivalents, which quantify physical activity levels. Participants were also asked whether they regularly exercise to a sweat.

    The team administered cognitive tests in 2008, and, using participants’ medical records, scored for dementia through 2011. The researchers identified 28, or 4.5 percent of the cohort, to have Alzheimer’s.

    No physical activity measure in mid-life was associated with late-life cognitive fitness or onset of dementia. The study confirmed findings of other cross-sectional studies, that higher levels of physical activity and exercise measured close in time to the cognitive testing were associated with better cognitive functioning. The authors also looked at whether patterns of change in physical activity levels over the life span were associated with cognitive health and found no relationships.

    The idea that exercise might play a role in preventing or limiting Alzheimer’s makes sense, the researchers say, because physical activity, at least in mouse models, has shown less accumulation of B-amyloid plaques, which are thought to play a role in dementia, including Alzheimer’s. In addition, physical activity improves blood flow to the brain, which is linked to better cognitive performance. This may explain why studies find that exercise may contribute to cognitive fitness in the short term.

    “These findings have implications for intervention work moving forward,” says Gross. “We still need to focus on causes and mechanisms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, since we don’t yet know which preventive measures may or may not work. For now, when I speak in the community about Alzheimer’s, I find that people take some relief in understanding that there wasn’t anything that anyone might have done to avoid a loved one developing Alzheimer’s. Of course, the goal for researchers is to identify factors that may help older people maintain their cognitive function into their later years. More long-term studies like the Precursors study are needed.”


  6. Study suggests high-intensity interval training releases endorphins in the brain

    September 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Turku press release:

    Finnish researchers at the University of Turku have revealed that exercise-induced endorphin release in the brain depends on the intensity of the exercise. Endorphin release induced by exercise may be an important mechanism which affects exercise motivation and maintenance of regular physical activity.

    A recent study conducted at Turku PET Centre, University of Turku, shows that the popular high-intensity interval training (HIIT) leads to endorphin release in the brain, which might alleviate the physical and emotional stress caused by the high-intensity exercise. A less demanding, traditional one-hour aerobic exercise does not cause similar endorphin release.

    In the study, HIIT significantly increased the release of endorphins and other opioid peptides in the brain areas controlling pain and emotions. In addition, HIIT induced negative feelings in the test subjects, which was associated with higher endorphin release. Although one-hour aerobic exercise did not induce significant release of endorphins, it increased pleasurable feelings and euphoria, which correlated with endorphin release.

    – Our results highlight that exercise intensity affects endorphin release and that the brain opioid system is involved in both positive and negative feelings caused by physical exercise performed at different intensities, says Doctoral Candidate Tiina Saanijoki from Turku PET Centre.

    – Exercise-induced endorphin release may be an important mechanism which supports exercise motivation and maintenance of regular exercise. At moderate training intensities, the pleasurable sensations caused by the possible release of endorphins may promote habitual exercise. At very high exercise intensities the release of endorphins appears to be linked to increased negative feelings and pain, and may be needed to manage the emotionally and physically demanding challenge. However, such negative feelings may discourage further exercise. Exercise intensity should be taken into account when starting new exercise routines, explains Saanijoki.

    The study was conducted using positron emission tomography (PET). The participants were injected with a radioactive compound which binds to their brain’s opioid receptors. Radioactivity in the brain was measured with the PET scanner in three conditions: after a 60-min aerobic moderate-intensity exercise session, after a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session, and after rest.


  7. Firmer, fitter frame linked to firmer, fitter brain

    August 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering press release:

    Scientists have observed that more aerobically fit individuals have better memories. To investigate this phenomenon, they used magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), which measures the firmness and elasticity of organs, and found that fit individuals had a firmer, more elastic hippocampus — a region of the brain associated with memory. The method could provide early diagnosis and potential interventions in the initial stages of neurodegenerative disease.

    “MRE is a technique that has been used in organs like the liver, where it can assess the tissue stiffness and offers a reliable, non-invasive method for diagnosing hepatic fibrosis,” explains Guoying Liu, Ph.D. Director of the NIBIB program on Magnetic Resonance Imaging. “This study now demonstrates the tremendous potential for MRE to provide new quantitative biomarkers for assessing brain health as it relates to physical fitness. This is particularly significant given the rise in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease occurring in the U.S. and worldwide.”

    The research was performed by Aron K. Barbey, Associate Professor, Departments of Psychology and Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with his colleagues at Illinois, and with collaborators from Northeastern University in Boston and the University of Delaware. Their results are reported in the March issue of the journal NeuroImage.

    The work was based on well-established observations of atrophy and reduced size of the hippocampus in cognitively declining seniors and developmentally delayed children. Given that long-known phenomenon, the researchers were puzzled by the fact that in young adults there was a correlation between fitness and memory, but the size of the hippocampus was the same in both groups.

    “Most of the work in this area has relied on changes in the size of the hippocampus as a measure of hippocampal health and function. However, in young adults, although we see an increase in memory in more aerobically fit individuals, we did not see differences in hippocampal size,” said Barbey. “Because size is a gross measure of the structural integrity of the hippocampus, we turned to MRE, which provides a more thorough and qualitative measure of changes associated with function — in this case memory.”

    The investigators explained that MRE gives a better indication of the microstructure of the hippocampus — the structural integrity of the entire tissue. And it does this by basically “bouncing” the organ, very gently, and measuring how it responds.

    MRE is often described as being similar to a drop of water hitting a still pond to create the ripples that move out in all directions. A pillow under the subject’s head generates harmless pulses, known as shear waves, that travel through the hippocampus. MRE instruments measure how the pulsed waves change as they move through the brain and those changes give an extremely accurate measure — and a color-coded picture — of the consistency of the tissue: soft, hard and stiff, or firm with some bounce or elasticity.

    The healthy hippocampus is like a firm pillow that quickly bounces back into shape after you press your finger into it as opposed to a mushy pillow that would retain your finger mark and not rebound to its original shape.

    The researchers studied 51 healthy adults: 25 men and 26 women ages 18-35. They measured the participants’ performance on a memory test as well as their aerobic fitness levels, and used MRE to measure the elasticity of the hippocampus.

    They found that those with higher fitness levels also had more elastic tissue in the hippocampus and scored the best on memory tests. Given the many studies showing the association between hippocampal health and memory in seniors and children, which was based on the size of the hippocampus, the results strongly suggest that MRE is a method that reveals that there is also an association between the health of the hippocampus and memory in young adults.

    Said Barbey, “MRE turned out to be a fantastic tool that enabled us to demonstrate the importance of the hippocampus in healthy young adults and the positive effect of fitness. We are excited about using MRE to look at other brain structures and diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, that involve cognitive impairment. We hope to see if and how MRE might be a valuable tool for early diagnosis and treatment of a number of neurodegenerative diseases.”

    “And, of course, if these results are more widely disseminated,” Barbey concludes, “they could certainly serve as tremendous motivation for people concerned about getting forgetful as they age, to get moving and try to stay fit.”

    The work was supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and bioengineering though grants EB018320 and EB001981. Additional funding was provided by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), and the National Science Foundation.


  8. Study suggests exercise incentives do little to spur gym-going

    August 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Case Western Reserve University press release:

    Even among people who had just joined a gym and expected to visit regularly, getting paid to exercise did little to make their commitment stick, according to a new study from Case Western Reserve University.

    The rewards also had no lasting effect: gym visits stabilized after the modest incentives ended.

    Despite timing incentives to when people were already more motivated to exercise, the approach proved ineffective in initiating a healthy behavior that continues to elude most Americans: only 21 percent get a recommended amount of weekly exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

    “They wanted to exercise regularly, and yet their behavior did not match their intent, even with a reward,” said Mariana Carrera, an assistant professor of economics at the Weatherhead School of Management and co-author of the study. “People thought earning the incentive would be easy but were way overoptimistic about how often they’d go.”

    In the study, new gym members intended to visit three times per week but ended up averaging one weekly visit by the end of the six-week study.

    Nearly 95 percent said they expected to visit the gym more than once per week. But by the end of the third month, only about a third had.

    The experiment

    For visiting the gym nine total times during the study (an average of 1.5 times per week), participants were promised one of three modest rewards: a $30 Amazon gift card; a prize item, such as a blender, of equivalent value; or a $60 Amazon gift card. A control group received a $30 Amazon gift card regardless of how often they visited. (The value of incentives was based on what gyms were likely to offer.)

    After the first week, 14 percent did not visit the gym again.

    Incentivized participants showed a slight increase in gym visits in the sixth week — their last chance to make enough visits to earn their prize. But overall, those given incentives made only 0.14 more visits per week than those promised no reward at all.

    Focusing on people when they’re ready to make a change may be misguided,” said Carrera. “Maybe the internal motivation that gets a person to start a gym membership is unrelated to what drives them to earn financial incentives. What’s clear was there was no complementarity in lumping these two motivations together.”

    The group promised the $60 gift card also did not visit the gym more often than those given the $30 gift card or prize.

    Researchers thought that selecting the prize item at the outset might create a sense of ownership and prove to be a more powerful motivator, because failing to hit the target visit rate might feel like a loss. However, while the item induced slightly more visits, the difference was insignificant.


  9. Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

    August 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Stanford University press release:

    Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

    Your answer might be linked to your risk of premature death decades from now — no matter how physically active you actually are, according to research by Stanford scholars Octavia Zahrt and Alia Crum.

    The research, appearing July 20 in Health Psychology, finds that people who think they are less active than others in a similar age bracket die younger than those who believe they are more active — even if their actual activity levels are similar.

    “Our findings fall in line with a growing body of research suggesting that our mindsets — in this case, beliefs about how much exercise we are getting relative to others — can play a crucial role in our health,” Crum said.

    Powerful effects of perception

    Crum, an assistant professor of psychology, and Zahrt, a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of Business, analyzed surveys from more than 60,000 U.S. adults from three national data sets. The surveys documented participants’ levels of physical activity, health and personal background, among other measures. In one of the samples, participants wore an accelerometer to measure their activity over a week.

    Zahrt and Crum were interested in one question in particular: “Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?”

    The researchers then viewed death records from 2011, which was 21 years after the first survey was conducted. Controlling for physical activity and using statistical models that accounted for age, body mass index, chronic illnesses and other factors, they found that individuals who believed that they were less active than others were up to 71 percent more likely to die in the follow-up period than individuals who believed that they were more active than their peers.

    Fit on the Farm?

    Much of the study’s inspiration derived from Zahrt’s experience when she arrived at Stanford. Zahrt, a native of Germany who previously studied in France and England, had stayed in shape by biking to school and making occasional trips to the gym.

    But at Stanford, Zahrt said it seemed that “everyone was incredibly active” and perhaps she wasn’t exercising as much as she should.

    “Suddenly, I felt like I had done something wrong all these years,” Zahrt said. “I felt unhealthy and I was stressed about fitting more exercise into my busy schedule. I really had a negative mindset.”

    While taking a health psychology class taught by Crum, Zahrt learned more about the effects of mindsets on health outcomes. For example, Crum’s prior research shows that the health benefits people get out of everyday activities depend in part on their mindsets — that is, whether or not they believe that they are getting good exercise. In her 2007 study, Crum made a group of hotel room attendants aware that the activity they got at work met recommended levels of physical activity. Through this shift in mindsets, the workers, many of whom had previously perceived themselves as inactive, experienced reductions in weight, body fat and blood pressure, among other positive outcomes. Zahrt wondered if many people, like her, had negative mindsets about their physical activity levels because of social comparison with more active peers, and if this might be harming their health. Her class paper on this topic sparked the collaboration leading to the published study.

    How mindsets influence us

    Zahrt and Crum offer possible explanations for mindsets and perceptions having such powerful effects on health. One is that perceptions can affect motivation, both positively and negatively. Those who are made aware of their healthy activity levels — like the hotel room attendants in Crum’s 2007 study — can build on them and exercise more. Those who deem themselves unfit are more likely to remain inactive, fueling feelings of fear, stress or depression that negatively affect their health.

    The researchers also cite the established influence of placebo effects, where patients who think they are getting a treatment experience physiological changes without receiving actual treatment. In the same way, people who believe they are getting good exercise may experience more physiological benefits from their exercise than those who believe they aren’t getting enough exercise.

    “Placebo effects are very robust in medicine. It is only logical to expect that they would play a role in shaping the benefits of behavioral health as well,” Crum said.

    The researchers emphasize that the study is correlational in nature and thus does not prove that perceptions of inactivity cause earlier death. However, other experimental research — such as Crum’s 2007 study — does suggest a causal nature to the link between perceived amounts of exercise and health outcomes.

    Taking mindsets seriously

    “So much effort, notably in public health campaigns, is geared toward motivating people to change their behavior: eat healthier, exercise more and stress less,” Crum said. “But an important variable is being left out of the equation: people’s mindsets about those healthy behaviors.”

    In fact, a growing volume of research from Crum and other labs shows that perceptions and mindsets predict health and longevity, for example, in the domains of stress, diet and obesity.

    That our mindsets could have such potent effects on our physiology may seem provocative and unlikely at first glance, but Crum reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised by these results considering the “everyday experiences where our beliefs or a simple thought have very palpable and physiological effects.”

    “In the case of stress, a thought about something going wrong can make us sweat or [become] shaky or increase our heart rate,” Crum continued. “With sexual arousal, a simple thought or idea can have immediate physical effects. We experience these things regularly, and yet we’re not cataloguing them as something that matters. For whatever reason — dualism or a prioritization of the material — we tend to ignore the fact that our thoughts, mindsets and expectations are shaping our everyday physiology.”

    How can people use this finding? Many Americans think that vigorous exercise in a gym is the only way to attain a proper activity level, according to Zahrt and Crum. But being mindful of and feeling good about activities you do every day — like taking the stairs, walking or biking to work, or cleaning the house — could be an easy first step for everyone to benefit their health.

    “It’s time that we start taking the role of mindsets in health more seriously,” Crum said. “In the pursuit of health and longevity, it is important to adopt not only healthy behaviors, but also healthy thoughts.”


  10. How physical exercise prevents dementia

    August 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main press release:

    Numerous studies have shown that physical exercise seems beneficial in the prevention of cognitive impairment and dementia in old age. Now researchers at Goethe University Frankfurt have explored in one of the first studies worldwide how exercise affects brain metabolism.

    In order to further advance current state of knowledge on the positive influence of physical activity on the brain, gerontologists and sports physicians at Goethe University Frankfurt have examined the effects of regular exercise on brain metabolism and memory of 60 participants aged between 65 and 85 in a randomised controlled trial. Their conclusion: regular physical exercise not only enhances fitness but also has a positive impact on brain metabolism.

    As the researchers report in the current issue of the medical journal Translational Psychiatry, they thoroughly examined all the participants in the SMART study (Sport and Metabolism in Older Persons, an MRT Study) by assessing movement-related parameters, cardiopulmonary fitness and cognitive performance. In addition, magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) were used to measure brain metabolism and brain structure. Following this examination, the participants mounted an exercise bike three times a week over a period of 12 weeks. The 30-minute training sessions were individually adapted to each participant’s performance level. The participants were examined again after the end of the programme in order to document the effects of this physical activity on brain metabolism, cognitive performance and brain structure. The researchers also investigated to what extent exercise had led to an improvement in the participants’ physical fitness. The study was conducted by the Gerontology Department of the Institute of General Medicine (headed by Professor Johannes Pantel) and the Department of Sports Medicine (led by Professor Winfried Banzer).

    As expected, physical activity had influenced brain metabolism: it prevented an increase in choline. The concentration of this metabolite often rises as a result of the increased loss of nerve cells, which typically occurs in the case of Alzheimer’s disease. Physical exercise led to stable cerebral choline concentrations in the training group, whereas choline levels increased in the control group. The participants’ physical fitness also improved: they showed increased cardiac efficiency after the training period. Overall, these findings suggest that physical exercise not only improves physical fitness but also protects cells.