A check-in on New Year’s resolutions, weight loss, exercise, and brain health

How is it that February is almost gone? For those who made New Year’s resolutions about health, fitness, and diet, it might be time for a check in: Is that exercise regimen producing both the physical and mental health results desired? Is it time to toss at least one long-time, favorite exercise that was supposed to carve up the abs? And might some of the weight-loss challenges that dieters experience be more a matter of the gut or more greatly influenced by upbringing than previously believed?

Best exercise for the brain?

ratNew research has shed some intriguing light on which type of exercise produces the most optimal mental as well as physical results.

From a distance, it may almost seem comical. But the study results were obtained in rats that engaged in cardio, resistance, and high-intensity forms of exercise. The rodents who hit their equivalent of dumbbells and those who engaged in rigorous sprints interspersed with fast walks (high intensity exercise) showed fewer signs of the creation of new brain cells in an already mature brain─aka neurogenesis.

The rats who did the equivalent of steady, paced jogging — aerobic exercise — had the highest number of new brain cells generated.

As the Times describes it:

Obviously, rats are not people. But the implications of these findings are provocative. They suggest [the lead researcher said], that “sustained aerobic exercise might be most beneficial for brain health also in humans.” Just why distance running was so much more potent at promoting neurogenesis than the other workouts is not clear, although [researchers] speculate that distance running stimulates the release of a particular substance in the brain known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor that is known to regulate neurogenesis. The more miles an animal runs, the more BDNF it produces.

Weight or resistance training doesn’t prompt the brain to produce more BDNF, the researchers said. They said that the stress high-intensity training imposes on mature brains and body may reverse any of its positive effects.

So long, sit-ups

As for that legendary exercise to flatten tummies and carve up the abs, in case you missed it, experts say it’s time to say hasta la vista to sit-ups. Various branches of the military, which made this calisthenic integral to fitness lore, recently have decided they want to deep-six the sit up, saying, as many experts have, that the exercise puts too much stress on the lower back. [Here’s the link to the full Wall Street Journal article, in case you can get past their pay wall.] It doesn’t do all that much for flattening and toning the belly, either . The alternative? Try planks.

For those who committed to weight reduction goals for the New Year, it may feel like walking the plank to lose any pounds. Research continues to pile up that weight loss may be a more complex issue than just exercising more and eating less─though those are two basic elements to any reduction plan.

Poverty’s long-lasting harm

Grow up poor? That may have a lifelong effect on your  weight control, researchers say. Long after individuals are exposed to an early life of hard knocks, they “seem to have a significantly harder time regulating their food intake, even when they aren’t hungry.” As one of the lead experts in a recent Texas Christian University study observed:  “We found that they eat comparably high amounts regardless of their need.”

The researchers are still investigating. But they theorize that kids who grow up poor don’t get good guidance about healthful consumption, learning to eat whatever and whenever food’s available, not just when they need to (they’re hungry). This disrupts the body’s natural cluing systems, and, over time, this may grow ingrained. Although it may be possible to disrupt this pattern, as the Washington Post observes of the study’s implications:

Chewie19BBY-CVDIf there is such a gap between how poor and rich children interact with food that carries over to rest of their lives, it complicates our understanding of why here in the United States, contrary to international trends, poor people are far more prone to obesity than their wealthier counterparts. Many have posited that it’s not how much poorer households are eating, but what they are eating that has caused this trend. And there is plenty of reason to believe there is truth to this—studies have shown, after all, that lower income families choose substantially less healthy foods than others. The harms of unhealthier diets, however, are all the more nefarious when they’re coupled with a fractured ability to regulate eating.

Other researchers are investigating, too, whether the very gut itself─or more specifically the human biome, the myriad micro-organisms that have come to dwell there in the eons of evolution─may play a role in whether humans are thin or fat. A new investigation soon to start of the human biome’s effect on weight isn’t the most appetizing to describe (hint: poop pills). But folks have tried far stranger and more tortuous ways to lose weight, right?

Chew(y) on this, texting fiends

Lastly, for those who resolved to walk more to be healthy in the New Year: Please, make those strolls free(r) of smartphones and other hand-held devices. The Wall Street Journal found a clever way, in a video, to illustrate the growing problem of device-distracted pedestrians and their potential for injury. It’s worth checking out. But having been on the Right Coast and in San Francisco, there’s enough street weirdness (as in Washington), that maybe it is easy to miss a six-foot fur-covered character?


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