Could non-aerobic exercise help prevent Alzheimer’s and other dementia? Possibly. A recent article in The Atlantic reported on a study involving a group of seniors residing in Shanghai, China and the practice of the ancient art of tai chi as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s.
Tai chi, as described by the Mayo Clinic website, is “… a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching. To do tai chi, you perform a series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion.”
Scientists from the University of South Florida, together with researchers from Fudan University in Shanghai, conducted a 40-week randomized controlled trial with 120 community-based seniors who do not have dementia.
According to the article, the scientists “compared the cognitive health of tai chi practitioners to that of members of a group that received no intervention [tai chi] by administering MRIs as well as neuropsychological measures for dementia, learning capacity, and verbal fluency throughout the study period.”
In the control group, the participants who did not practice tai chi showed brain shrinkage that was consistent with what has been observed among most people in their 60s and 70s. Conversely, the participants who practiced tai chi three times per week showed significant increases in brain volume as well as improvements in their thinking processes and memory test scores.
These scientists feel that there is a good chance that gentle exercise such as tai chi, by increasing brain volume, may be helpful in preventing or slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s.
What about aerobic exercise?
Just last week, I posted an article about a study that indicates that exercise is more important than diet in preventing Alzheimer’s. In this study, researchers studied genetically altered mice with Alzheimer’s. The mice that exercised had better control of their weight and a lower rate of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Most other studies involving exercise and Alzheimer’s prevention also concentrated on aerobic exercise such as brisk walking or the use of treadmills, so getting substantial aerobic exercise is likely a good idea for most of us.
Since reading about the tai chi study, I’ve become curious about yoga. I’ve done yoga stretches and poses for decades. Though I’m not very accomplished by a yoga instructor’s standards, as I don’t have training, it’s certainly been helpful in maintaining my flexibility. Perhaps its wishful thinking, but I do hope my concentrated stretching has also helped my brain.
As we know, studies are often disproven by new information, so we can’t rely on any one study to give us the total picture. However, tai chi and other gentle forms of thoughtful exercise will nearly always improve balance and flexibility. If increasing brain volume and memory is part of the picture, why not give our bodies the benefit of these soothing exercises?