Only a few short decades ago the role of exercise in disease prevention was primarily focused on heart disease and the prevention of atherosclerosis or plaque in arteries. Now, we know that exercise plays a significant role in the protection and treatment of numerous health issues including diabetes, cancer, vascular disease leading to stroke, hypertension, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. We also know that exercise training for fitness and skill is the greatest tool for optimizing sport performance. Even astronauts use exercise on the International Space Station to preserve physiological function and health while military troops use it to improve function and safety in combat. There are also benefits that extend far beyond the physical, and I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to conduct research in most of those areas as well. For example, exercise is a primary source of recreation and social interaction. Research has also found that physical activity has a positive role in a number of issues relating to mental health such as depression, anxiety, dementia and age-related mental decline.
Currently, I am investigating the role of exercise in brain health in seniors. We know that exercise training increases blood flow in the brain, which is associated with brain health and the slowing of age-related cognitive decline. However, this kind of training requires a rather intense workload, for at least 20 minutes three times per week. Most seniors don’t exercise this way.
What I am exploring is if the activities of daily living–walking, stair-climbing, cleaning, gardening–can on their own place a sufficient challenge on the cardiovascular system to increase blood flow to the brain. In my current study, seniors wear portable instruments to measure brain blood flow and several other markers such as blood pressure, heart rate, caloric expenditure and breathing parameters as they walk at different speeds and then as they do a series of household activities such as walking stairs and putting away groceries. Through those activities, my research partners and I are able to determine if brain blood flow changes with each activity and investigate what is causing those changes.
As Canada’s population ages, this research could have a significant, positive impact on a larger segment of our society and the heavy burden facing public health in an aging demography.
Dianne Moroz is Assistant Professor of Physical Education and chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education