You Can’t Exercise Yourself Away from Alzheimer’s

happy old guyThis really stinks.

I like puzzles. I like games. I exercise a good six days a week. And now I find out that all of that stuff has been a total waste. My brain, it seems, is still going to atrophy into a mess of cottage cheese.

According to a recent study, those activities, long suspected to stave off Alzheimer’s, do not seem to have the effects that would indicate progress in that direction.

Physical and mental activity don’t appear to prevent the brain from developing the telltale beta-amyloid deposits that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests.

If you’re confused, think of it like this. High blood pressure doesn’t actually hurt you, but it leads to nasty things like strokes and heart attacks. Since you don’t want to wait around to have a stroke to see if a treatment helps, reduced blood pressure is a good indicator that a treatment is helping.

So if you want to do your sudoku, play Clash of Clans, or pump iron, do it for its own benefits and not to hold Alzheimer’s at bay.

In Search of Goldilocks Exercise

The problem with a lot of academics, including academics in the medical field, is that they have to keep researching and writing and publishing in order to keep their jobs, get promoted, or move on to greener pastures. Because of this need, a lot of people are tempted to offer less-than-stellar work for publication.

In recent years, a cluster of researchers, notably Carl Lavie and James O’Keefe, have led the charge in advocating something called the excessive exercise theory. At the heart of their theory lay the idea that vigorous exercise, for example running more than a couple of times a week, could be harmful to health.

As these things tend to go, the studies that allowed these researchers to sound an alarm over excessive exercise have been undercut by other studies that don’t support the theory, causing the writers to backtrack. Lavie shares his current position:

“As first author, while I believe there are risks associated with very high levels of exercise, I wanted to emphasize several points,” he wrote. “First, low exercise is a much more prevalent problem for our society than is excessive exercise. Second, the maximal health benefits of exercise typically occur at quite low levels. More exercise may burn more calories and improve athletic performance, but probably does not lead to better health outcomes.

I’m imagining Lavie describing a search for a Goldilocks level of exercise: something that’s not “too much” or “too little,” but “just right.”

On the off chance that you won’t study up on all the background information, let’s just summarize by saying that there’s, at best, conflicting information on negative health effects from excessive exercise. Some studies suggest that an enormous amount of exercise has mildly negative effects while others say that it is positive.

In reality, most mortals don’t exercise so much that they’d need to worry about those negatives.

The fault I have with research like Lavie’s is that it tries to boil everything down to a single factor, treating human exercise like an algebraic equation. He admits that a great deal of exercise will burn more calories and increase athletic performance but suggests that these positives will come at a cost in “health outcomes.”

I’m the last one to volunteer to die tomorrow, but since when did “health outcomes,” decreases in morbidity and mortality, become the absolute gold standard in human life. I’d be much more interested in talking about “life outcomes.” Who wants to live a very long, very healthy, but very empty life? Such a life amounts to hoarding years, which is surely as unworthy as hoarding money.

I’m all for Goldilocks and a “just right” life, but I don’t believe the excessive exercise crowd have found the way to measure that.

Get Fit, Not Ripped

Round is a ShapeI very much appreciate a recent article by Dr. Michael Gleiber–that’s M.D., and not a mere Ph.D.–in which he argues that we do not need to look ripped in order to be properly fit. He goes on to describe four aspects of activity by which we can measure our fitness. For example, he suggests this push-up test for strength and endurance:

Push-ups are a great way to test your strength and endurance. When testing yourself, make sure you are keeping proper form. Lie facedown on the floor, elbows bent with your palms next to your shoulders. Keep your back straight, and push up until your arms are fully extended, then return to the starting position. Each time you return to that starting position, it counts as one push-up. If you can only do a few pushups before you need to rest, you may need to work more on your strength and endurance.

I like the idea of focusing on outcomes rather than muscle definition, but did you notice the problem with Dr. Gleiber’s prescription? “If you can only do a few pushups”? How many is a few? I have a former Marine friend who would probably say that 25 is a few. And how many is a lot?

He also suggests measuring aerobic fitness by walking a mile “briskly,” measuring flexibility with a sit and reach test, and measuring body fat through BMI (ugh!). Only in the case of BMI does he give a benchmark against which to measure fitness, but he fouls that up by saying that BMI “indicates your percentage of body fat.” As we’ve seen elsewhere–and as he surely knows–BMI does no such thing.

This guy is a spinal surgeon, so I’m guessing he’s busy. But is he really too busy to give us some actual standards by which to measure our fitness? Is it any wonder, absent those standards, that people simply look in the mirror and use the “ripped” test that Dr. Gleiber condemns?

Stressing over Exercise?

You know that you should exercise, right? It’s kind of like eating your vegetables or reading “improving books.” Or is it something more? A recent book, Spark: The New Science of Exercise and the Brain, which is reviewed by Shane Parrish, tells us how exercise does more than simply allow us to consume more calories or provide cardiovascular benefits.

Modern life, as we all know, can be full of stress. Neuroscientists can actually point to physiological ways that stress messes you up.

If mild stress becomes chronic, the unrelenting cascade of cortisol triggers genetic actions that begin to sever synaptic connections and cause dendrils to atrophy and cells to die; eventually, the hippocampus can end up physically shriveled, like a raisin.

Think of exercise, this book suggests, as a way to drain stress from your life. But don’t take my word for it. Those same neuroscientists who have been poking around at your cortisol and dendrils have also demonstrated how exercise can keep the dendrils happy. We all want happy dendrils, don’t we?

While all of this might seem like triumphalist science explaining everything and rendering God unnecessary, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, these discoveries simply confirm what believers have known for centuries. We are wonderfully and fearfully made. With each new discovery science sees more of that.

Now if you’ll pardon me, my dendrils are suffering.  I need to head to the gym.

Yogini or Yogurtini?

YogaI am conflicted when it comes to the practice of Yoga. My decidedly secular college fills up as many Yoga classes as they offer. While I have never attended one of those classes, I feel confident that there are no mantras chanted, no chakra magic invoked, and no references to Lord Shiva or any other Hindu deity.

Yoga is, stripped of the Hindu mumbo-jumbo–that’s a Sanskrit term, I’m pretty sure, synonymous with “folderah”–can provide good exercise and stretching. I do a couple of Yoga poses in my lower body strength training but without calling them Yoga. The “locust” asana or pose came to me as a “Superman.” You lie, face-down, on the floor and then lift up your head and arms at the same time that you lift your legs, leaving only your mid-section on the mat. The plank pose, basically holding yourself in an “up” pushup position, is not one of the traditional positions from what I can discover, but it is a staple of Yoga classes today. Hold either of these positions for 15 seconds or so and you’ll probably be feeling less spiritual and more shaky than before.

My mixed feelings come from the very religious, very Hindu roots of the practice. The traditional 84 Yoga asanas were supposedly created by the Hindu god Shiva. One traditional sequence, the surya namaskara, is known in English as the Sun Salutation. Essentially it is a form of worship toward the Hindu sun god. The whole purpose of Yoga practice, at least originally, is to allow the yogi (male) or yogini (female) to be able to meditate for long periods of time. This is a very religious practice in its origins.

While I can use my two “poses” and not feel any risk of being drawn into Hinduism, I’m reluctant to fully explore this sort of exercise. On the other hand, I wonder at that original purpose.

How many Christians fail to worship to their ability, fail to pray deeply and effectively, and fail to have the focus necessary to really embrace a long sermon because their body is saying, “No.” I once heard good advice for teachers: “The brain can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

Shouldn’t Christians tune their bodies just as carefully as Hindus tune theirs? Shouldn’t we do our best to ensure that achy joints or finicky backs do not  limit our ability to worship the one true God? When we have a living object for our worship, shouldn’t we do our best to make our bodies capable of enduring and enjoying that worship?

What’s on Your Plate?

“What’s for dinner?” Is any more important question ever passed between spouses during a Sunday morning lull in the sermon? What could be more spiritual than considering in advance the contents of your dinner plate? This morning, however, that sermon urged me to think not about literal food but about metaphorical food. “What’s on your plate?” in terms of responsibilities and projects.

plate 2

Over lunch today, I wrote down my priorities–the activities that I would hope would fill my life–on a paper plate. At the center of the plate I placed God. I’d hope any Christian would aim to put God at the center of life, even if He gets pushed off toward the Brussels sprouts from time to time.

Around the perimeter of my plate I arranged three items: Family, Writing, and Teaching. Those are my items. Yours, more than likely, will be different, perhaps Time Travel or Nuclear Fusion.

But then I sat back and thought about the amount of time that I spend running, biking, eating right, and doing other health maintenance activities. Should these things have gone alongside Family, Writing, and Teaching on the plate’s edge? I don’t believe they do go there. Instead, my fitness activities, whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, serve those other items already written on my plate.

Think about it. By eating right and keeping my body reasonably fit, I’ll have more energy to teach, more years to write, and a greater ability to serve my family. Rather than sacrificing part of my plate to accommodate running and healthy eating, I recognize that these activities actually help me have a bigger plate.

Whatever you have on your plate, wherever God leads you to invest your time, good stewardship demands that fitness matters have a place on the platter. It’s not that controlling your blood pressure or eating more vegetables are ends in themselves. Similarly, sharpening your mind or increasing your emotional intelligence will strengthen you in all areas and help you to achieve more wherever God calls you.

What’s on your plate? Whatever it is, a serving of fitness will aid the digestion. Now if only that burrito I had for lunch would do the same.

Fit or Fat?–2 John 1:8

Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.–2 John 1:8

Vince buttonholed me at church yesterday, calling me “Liberal,” which meant that we’re still friends. “Are you still running?” he asked me.

“No, I’ve gotten out of the habit,” I confessed.

Vince is a few years older than me, but lean and muscular, a guy who takes his physical fitness seriously without being a bore about it. “I can’t quit,” he explained, not exactly chastising me. “I’ve worked too hard to get fit to lose it all. And you can lose way too much in just a couple of weeks.”

Don’t I know it! Since January, I’ve barely put in any exercise time at all. I can feel the loss when I go up stairs and when I mow the grass. I can feel it when I fasten my belt as well. Day after day, I tell myself that I just have to get back to the gym, back to running, back to biking, back to something to reverse this trend, but as each day passes me by, I haven’t done it. When I do get back into my routine, I’ll be starting from scratch.

Part of me could say, “Well, I’m not much of an athlete, so it’s not too big a deal.” Truly, if I had been born with a marathoner’s body, then I would have wasted more over the last six months, but I have lost what I worked for. There’s a sprinter from Jamaica named Jolt–great name for a runner–who is expected to win the 100m and 200m Olympic contests this summer. I know that no matter how hard I train–or how hard I had ever trained–I could never have been a runner like Jolt. God didn’t bless me with that sort of physique, but that’s not John’s point.

John tells us not to lose what you have worked for. That’s not our salvation, which we did not work for and which we cannot lose. There are other things, however, that we have worked for, things we can lose.  I’ve worked for my career, my marriage, and my financial well-being, all things that I could lose (or at least damage) in a heartbeat with the wrong foolish actions.

The same body sits here on the couch that sat here in January. It’s fatter and less fit, but it’s the same. Perhaps today is the day that I’ll get back into the routine. Or maybe tomorrow.