Exercise + Video Games = Smarter?

Researchers at Union College recently showed that it’s possible for older people to experience cognitive benefits from doing exercise while also participating in virtual reality games. Specifically, they studied older people riding exercise bikes while playing a game that had them chase dragons and collect coins by pedaling faster and using controls. The people in the study had already started to experience some age-related cognitive decline, but by the end of six months participating in the study, their mental sharpness was better than it was before they started!
So what if you don’t have a virtual-reality video game attached to your exercise bike? The good news for you from this study is that another group of participants saw the exact same benefits from riding an exercise bike that just played a plain-old simulation of riding down the road. So you can imagine the benefits you would get from actually riding your bike outside.
This study was done as a follow-up to another study that showed that people who rode an exercise bike with the riding-down-the-road simulation showed cognitive gains over people who just rode an exercise bike with nothing to do or look at. The point of the new study was to find out if there could be further mental upsides to making the simulation into a video game environment with points to gain and so forth versus a straightforward biking simulation. The answer is no, there is no extra cognitive gain, although some people did say that the exercise itself felt easier to them when they were occupied by the game.
What does this tell us? That exercise has the most benefits when you do it in context. If you walk or jog, avoid doing it on a treadmill; do it outside or at the mall where you have to look and think about where you’re going.
The same goes for resistance training–machines force you to move in a certain way without you having to think about it, but it’s better to use kettlebells or resistance bands that force you to think about how you’re moving. Another exercise that we know is great for your brain is anything where your limbs cross the centerline of your body, like when using an agility ladder or doing toe-touches from one hand to the opposite foot.
So, if you can’t get your hands on a virtual reality machine, try exercising outside, in actual reality.

Sciatica Pain – Try this first

For those who don’t know, sciatica is intense pain in the legs caused by a pinching of the sciatic nerve.  Many doctors believe that sciatica is usually caused by spinal bones pinching a nerve in your back, leading to pain in the legs.  Sometimes, a highly invasive surgical procedure called “spinal fusion” can reduce or remove sciatica symptoms.  Unfortunately, this surgery often does not work, and after that, the only solution remaining to doctors is potentially addictive pain medication.

However, a 2005 study from the Journal of Neurosurgery found that most people who did not respond to this surgery actually had sciatica pain caused by a muscle pinching their nerve.  The good news about that is that we can treat these soft-tissue issues through non-surgical means.
If you’re experiencing sciatic nerve pain, before you take the plunge on radical surgery, give these exercises and treatments a try:

  • Walk backwards and sideways to try to stimulate different muscles around the sciatic nerve.
  • Stand on a tennis ball and roll it around under your foot.  This will stimulate nerves in the bottoms of your feet that are connected all the way up through your spine, and cause a release of tension and pressure.
  • Get a professional massage, and mention your sciatica pain.
  • Use an inversion table to release the pressure of gravity on your legs, feet, and spine.
  • Take hot baths with Epsom salts or Himalayan salt.
  • Cold laser or infrared therapy can help heat and relax muscles that cause you pain.
  • Try this stretch: lie on your back with your knees bent and place one leg over the other.  Feel the stretch, and then do it on the other side.

If you have sciatica, make sure you discuss it with your doctor, but keep in mind that the traditional explanation for sciatica may not be the right one for you. Invasive procedures may not be the best option, and hopefully they aren’t the first option your doctor suggests.

Preventing Falls

Falling is one of the top causes of life-changing injuries in older people. The good new is that most falls are preventable. There are several ways to prevent falls including keeping a clean environment, wearing well fitting shoes, and making sure any medications you’re taking aren’t causing negative side effects like drowsiness or dizziness. These are all common-sense measures that you can easily take today, but another less obvious way to maintain your balance and your independence is to do the right kinds of exercise.

If you go to a typical gym and use the equipment, you may increase your cardiovascular health, but you won’t improve your balance. One in three people over 65 will have a serious fall this year, regardless of their overall health. If you want to avoid falling, make sure you’re doing dynamic exercises. Unlike of working out on machines at the gym, doing dynamic exercises will increase your balance and stability. Any standing exercises will also enhance your balance.

What do I mean when I say dynamic exercises? In my practice, I focus on functional fitness, which means that I use mostly body weight exercises and exercises that work in three dimensions–using resistance bands, medicine balls, kettlebells, and other free-range-of-motion exercises. When I say “dynamic exercise,” these are the kinds of workouts I’m taking about. Dynamic exercises are especially useful for people for whom stability and balance is a priority. These exercises can help prevent injury more than one-dimensional (machine) exercises can.

If you’re an older person getting into exercise, make sure you respect the limits of your body. High-impact exercises and heavy weight lifting are very stressful on your body and you should try to minimize them if possible–especially as you age.

As you get older, you should also allow yourself more rest days. Working out is great, but you have to spend some time “working in”, by which I mean doing yoga, meditation, tai chi, qigong, and other forms of activity that are designed to restore energy, rather than expend it. These activities will help your body and mind stay healthy well after 50.

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