Exercise intensity makes a difference

By: Cassie Vanderwall, MS, RD, LDN, CPT

Regular exercise is touted for many different reasons.  It has been shown to help lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure, improve insulin resistance, manage stress and helps to promote a healthier weight. In a recent study, Dr. Joshua Willey from Columbia University, found that persons 60-70 years of age who take part in moderate-to-intense exercise regularly may have a lower risk of having a silent brain infarct, or ischemic stroke, and a lower risk of developing small lesions in the brain that are associated with dementia and poor mobility. 

 Willey and his fellow researchers, collected data on the exercise habits of 1,238 people (average age of 64 years), who had never had a stroke. Then, six years later they performed MRIs on the participants and found that 16% of the study sample had suffered from a stroke. Less than one-quarter of the study sample (21%) performed moderate to intense exercises such as: playing tennis or racquetball, swimming, jogging, or hiking, regularly.  These persons were 40% less likely to experience a stroke as compared to those who did not exercise at all (43%). It is interesting to note that there were no significant differences in the risk of experiencing a stroke between individuals who did not exercise and those who performed light exercise (36%).  Additionally, the benefits of regular exercise did not apply to the individuals who did not have health insurance or were on Medicaid.

Willey concluded that encouraging older adults to perform moderate and intense exercise may be an important strategy for promoting brain health, and that the more intense it is, the better the outcomes.

Currently, it is recommended that:

  • Adults and Older adults (18 years and older) perform at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (ie: brisk walking) OR 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (ie: jogging or running) every week in ADDITION to 8-10 strength exercises 2 days every week.
  • Children (6 to 17 years of age) need at least 60 minutes of aerobic exercise every day WITH vigorous aerobic exercise AND to perform strength exercises on 3 of those days.

Per the American Heart Association, persons who fulfill the above recommendations will most likely reap all of the many benefits of exercise, including a decreased risk of stroke. 

 I believe that as registered dietitians and health professionals, we need to be careful how we make exercise recommendations as to not dispirit anyone. Often times, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, five days per week can seem like a lofty goal for an older adult, obese individual, and individuals with congestive heart failure or respiratory disease.  It is vital to remember that persons can attain the same benefits from 30 minutes of exercise whether it is completed at one time or via three 10-minute bouts. It is also can be easier to increase the intensity of the work-out if it is performed in intervals or at different times throughout the day. Willey, added that he also does not want to discourage anyone from performing light exercise.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and it is important to encourage regular physical activity for persons of all ages. These free resources can be helpful in providing a foundation for your recommendations:

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Stephanie Hofhenke

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