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Get moving to curb risks

Shot of active and healthy senior people on a morning walk in park

Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s latest report, and this makes dementia a national health priority. With no cure for dementia, and limited treatment options available, now more than ever we need to seriously consider what our risk reduction options are.

We are regularly bombarded with messages about the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle, especially for reducing our risk of health complications later in life. How many of us actually pay attention to the warnings?

Only a week or two ago an article in The West Australian newspaper reported that leading a healthy lifestyle could reduce your risk of dementia by as much as 30 per cent.

The announcement was made at the recent Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, held in the United States. Researchers from Exeter University in the UK confirmed that a combination of exercise and healthy eating could cut a person’s chances of developing dementia by between 20 to 30 per cent depending on underlying factors. Their report was published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This is not the first report to herald this advice, nor will it be the last. So called ‘modifiable risk factors’ for dementia could hold the key to reducing the impact of the disease on current and future generations. Looking at several recent studies, the key areas to focus on are exercise and diet, as well as mental stimulation and social engagement.

Simply being told you need to exercise more for good health is probably not enough of a driver to make you actually do it. However, according to the World Health Organisation and their recently released guidelines ‘Risk reduction of cognitive decline and dementia’, exercise is at the top of the list of effective dementia risk reduction strategies.

The mornings may be dark and cold in Perth at the moment, but perhaps it’s time to reconsider taking up that early morning stroll before heading to work.

Evidence is mounting that people who are physically active are less likely to develop cognitive decline or dementia, compared to people who are inactive. The question now is why? And exactly what type of physical activity is best?

The ‘why’ is twofold. Firstly, exercise maintains good blood flow to the brain and encourages new brain cell growth in the hippocampus. By increasing your brain matter you can combat age related brain shrinkage, which in turn, can help to delay the onset of dementia.

Secondly, physical exercise has a positive effect on your risk of heart disease or stroke, blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity – all of which are risk factors for developing dementia.

The recommended types of activity are aerobic, strength training or a combination of both. Aerobic exercise is anything that gets you breathing harder and increases your heart rate such as brisk walking, cycling, swimming or dancing. Strength training could be using resistance bands or weights. Look at combining some moderate-intensity activities (ones that make you breath harder) with some high-intensity ones (where you can’t easily talk while doing them).

For those of us who find it hard to fit scheduled exercise into our busy days, there is hope. Any kind of physical activity is better than doing nothing, and there are plenty of ways to incorporate incidental exercise into your everyday life.

Think about all the opportunities you have in your day, or week, to increase your exercise… take the stairs instead of the escalator, park further away from work, clean the car by hand (not in a car wash), get involved with the kids sport.

Like the government campaign said, find your 30.

Exercise doesn’t have to be completed in one sitting to be beneficial, so try spreading it out throughout your day.

Incidental exercise can add up quickly, particularly when you seek out opportunities for it. Of course, consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program. And most importantly, make it enjoyable so it becomes part of your lifestyle.

Look for incidental opportunities to get more exercise

  • Sit less… at work and at home
  • Take the stairs rather than the lift or escalator
  • Walk the dog around the park, rather than standing still throwing a ball
  • Get involved with your kids or grandkids sport
  • Get off the bus a stop or two earlier
  • Park further away from work
  • Walk on your lunch break
  • Wash the car, or clean the house
  • Put on some music videos and dance to your favourite tunes
  • Walk with friends, or take the kids to the park
  • Make the bed every morning
  • Get out in the garden and tackle those winter weeds

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