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NEARLY every adult realizes the great value of exercise to one’s health and, yet, most of us need a little nudge to get exercising, says a Special Report of the April 20012 issue of the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter.

Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., director of Tufts’ John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention, author of the Strong Women series and, most recently, The Social Network Diet, recalls how several years ago she wasn’t getting enough exercise because of her very busy schedule, until a gifted graduate student (on whom she was doing a performance review), when prodded for her comments in return, reminded Nelson, “Your behavior doesn’t suggest a culture of valuing exercise even though that’s the mission of your job.”

This was all Nelson needed to start training for the Boston Marathon with her university’s team and building exercise into her daily life.

A special report of the health letter published the following seven surprising findings about exercise and your health:

¶ Exercise may negate extra genetic Alzheimer’s risk — According to a new observational study at Washington University in St. Louis, exercising may offset the propensity to Alzheimer’s disease among individuals at higher genetic risk for this condition.

Denise Head, Ph.D., and colleagues who used PET scans to image the brains of 163 participants, ages 45-88, whose scores were normal on a clinical assessment for cognitive decline, identified 52 as carriers of APOE epsilon-4, a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

Results revealed that among sedentary APOE epsilon-4 carriers, scans showed greater buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain associated with the development of Alzheimer’s.

On the other hand, carriers who were physically active (meeting the American Heart Association guidelines for regular exercise), showed no more buildup of amyloid plaques than found in the brains of non-carriers.

Head and colleagues noted that physical activity may trigger changes in metabolism and cerebral functioning that reduce the buildup.

¶ Marathons are generally safe for your heart — To evaluate the potential risk of having a cardiac arrest during long distance running races, Aaron Baggish, M.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, and colleagues created the Race Associated Cardiac Event Registry (RACER), a database of 10.9 million runners, average age 42, participating in marathons and half-marathons from Jan. 1, 2000, to May 31, 2010.

Only 59 cardiac arrests were recorded, for an incidence rate of 0.54 per 100,000 participants; 71 percent were fatal.

The researchers concluded that cardiac event rates are relatively low among marathon and half-marathon runners, as compared to other athletic populations, including collegiate athletes, triathlon participants and previously healthy middle-aged joggers.

However, they stress the importance of consulting a health professional before undertaking a strenuous new activity like training for a marathon — the data showed an increasing incidence of heart attacks for male marathoners in the later years of the study, which scientists suggest could be because more high-risk men are trying the sport without getting checked out first.

¶ Leisure and on-the-job activity both protect against heart attacks — but owning a car or TV boosts your risk — To help answer the question of whether on-the-job activity helps protect your heart, a new analysis of data from the global Interheart study was done by Claes Held, M.D., Ph.D., of Uppsala University in Sweden, and colleagues, who compared 10,043 individuals who’d suffered a first heart attack (myocardial infarction, or MI) with 14,217 healthy controls.

Both light and moderate on-the-job activity were associated with reduced risk of an acute MI, compared to being sedentary.

Only strenuous work was not linked to lower MI risk.

In explaining the result, Dr. Held said “this may be because such labor tends to involve lifting heavy objects rather than aerobic activity” or “results may also have been confounded by factors such as that a heavy workload may trigger an acute MI or that these laborers do not exercise at all during leisure time or work in an unhealthy environment.”

As expected, all levels of leisure time physical activity were associated with reduced MI risk, ranging from 13 percent lower risk for mild exercise to 24 percent lower for moderate-to-strenuous activity.

Even participants getting less than 30 minutes of exercise a week were at lower risk than the completely sedentary.

Ownership of an automobile or TV were also both associated with increased risk in low- and middle-income countries, likely because they encourage more sedentary habits, adds the health letter.

¶ “Cybercycling” benefits your brain as well as your body — Adding a virtual reality “race” — like that in active video games such as the Wii Fit — to stationary bicycling may boost your brain while the pedaling keeps your body in shape, says the health letter.

Results of a clinical trial of 79 seniors in independent-living retirement homes found that those who cycled while playing a racing game showed improvement on mental-function tests and were 23 percent less likely to be diagnosed with cognitive decline.

Cay Anderson-Hanley, Ph.D., of Union College, and colleagues compared racing-game participants’ cognitive performance with a control group that biked with the video game turned off — both groups cycled three times a week for three months on a stationary recumbent bike, which continuously elevates the heart rate.

Results revealed those who biked accompanied by the racing game showed a large improvement on several cognitive tests, while those who pedaled without playing showed none.

Also, seniors enjoyed the cycling more when playing the game, which could help individuals stick to an exercise program.

¶ Combine aerobics plus weights to battle metabolic syndrome — An eight-month study involving 198 men and women, ages 18 — 70, who were overweight and had unhealthy measures of blood lipids such as triglycerides — participants were randomly assigned to weight training three days a week, 120 minutes of aerobic training, or a combination regimen.

As expected, weight training did boost strength and aerobics improved fitness as measured by peak oxygen consumption, but only the combined exercise group saw a drop in the prevalence of metabolic syndrome.

Of the two single-exercise regimens, aerobic activity showed the greatest improvements in health measures including weight.

¶ Omega-3s might enhance the effects of strength training — Brazilian researchers suggest that, in addition to supplementing your aerobic exercises with strength training, using weights or resistance to give your muscles a workout (as shown by the previous study), adding omega-3s found in fish oil to your strength training could make those exercises work better.

At the Parana Federal University, scientists compared muscle strength and functional capacity before and after strength training of 45 senior women — two groups of women were given two grams daily of fish oil supplements, with one group starting the pills 60 days before the training began.

Results found all the participants showed muscle improvement, but the two fish-oil group improved more and also performed better in a chair-rising test.

Only those getting fish oil supplements showed improvements in electromechanical measures of muscle performance.

The researchers commented that fish oil, which is rich in omega-3s, has been shown to play a role in the plasma membrane and cell function of muscles, which may enhance the benefits of training.

¶ Even 15 minutes of daily exercise prolongs your life — Even if you cannot squeeze the recommended 30 minutes a day of exercise, a recent study from Taiwan suggests that a little activity is still better than none at all — just 15 minutes a day of exercise, or 90 minutes a week, was associated with a 14 percent lower mortality rate and an extra three years of projected life expectancy, compared to no exercise at all.

Researchers quizzed 416,175 adults on their exercise habits and calculated their projected life expectancy, then followed the participants for about eight years — both women and men benefitted from as little as 15 minutes of daily exercise, and each extra 15 minutes of daily activity was associated with an additional 4 percent lower risk of death.

These seven surprising facts about exercise might be enough to motivate and convince you to get off that couch, incorporate physical activity into your busy life and start enjoying the health benefits of exercise which includes looking forward to a very healthy and long, long life!

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