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Good health choices lessen risk

We are well aware of the benefits of exercising your physical health — it helps to control your weight, lowers your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and even protects against some types of cancer.

Now scientific evidence is also emerging of the benefits of exercise to your mental health.

World Move for Health Day, recently celebrated, is an annual global initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to promote physical activity as being essential for health and well-being.

“Research shows that just 150 minutes (two-and-a-half hours) of moderate-intensity exercise a week, including walking, lowers your risk of dying early from many of the leading causes of death,” says Prof Wayne Derman of Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

It is now coming to light that physical activity also has a major protective effect on the brain and nervous tissues and reduces one’s risk of developing neurological conditions.

“We have long known that exercise aids sleep, reduces anxiety and can even improve your mood and memory,” Derman, Director of the faculty’s Institute of Sport and Exercise Medicine (ISEM), points out.

“New research is showing that it also offers some protection against dementia and that it can be beneficial in the treatment of depression.”

A multinational study, which also includes data from research subjects in South Africa, was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology, and emphasises the dangers of not being active.

. Researchers found that people who are inactive for more than eight hours a day have a 1,56-time higher risk of experiencing memory loss and other symptoms of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is often a precursor for neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

. A Finnish study shows low fitness levels are associated with an increased risk of dementia. The study followed more than 2 000 Finnish men for an average period of 22 years, and found that those with a high cardio-respiratory fitness had a 20% lower risk of developing dementia than men with low cardio-respiratory fitness.

. The protective effect of exercise on the brain was reiterated by another study. Researchers from China recently reported that exercise could slow down the progression of cognitive impairment in ageing populations and potentially provide a cost-effective therapy in the fight against dementia.

Researchers from Norway combined the results of 23 earlier studies that looked at the effects of exercise on depression. They reported in the Journal of Affective Disorders that exercise had a significant effect on depression compared to no intervention, but was not quite as effective as psychological treatment or antidepressant medication. They recommended incorporating exercise alongside traditional interventions for effective treatment of depression.

“This research adds to the already long list of benefits that physical exercise offers the body and brain,” Derman says. “It is a cost-effective and accessible intervention that everyone can use to improve not only the quantity but also the quality of their life.”

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