Apparently all the exercise got to ‘em. For myself, not being a professional athlete, I thought my steadily declining memory was all my children’s fault. Seriously, when you have to remember the exact location of 4 sippy cups, 3 lovies, and 6 flip-flops at all times things like the periodic table and who was president before Regan go right out the window. And who can forget the time Gym Hubby and I accidentally left one of our kids at the gym after a good sweaty workout? (Don’t worry! We came back for him! And now all the gym staff ask us if we’ve done a head count before we leave.)
A study out of the University of Toronto exonerates the lot of us, saying that chronic strenuous exercise may be partly to blame for cognitive decline.
Following in the footsteps of money, fame and Jell-O, exercise provides yet another example of when some is good, more is not necessarily better. While many studies have shown a positive correlation between exercise and memory improvement, that goes out the window when you separate moderate from strenuous exercise.
This study performed last year on recently menopausal women with a long history of exercise showed that when the women performed consistent moderate exercise such as “brisk walking, golf, volleyball, cycling on level streets, recreational tennis, and softball” their cognitive functions improved. In a sad twist of research karma, women who consistently performed strenuous activities defined as “swimming laps, aerobics, calisthenics, running, jogging, basketball, cycling on hills, and racquetball” showed a sharp decline in eight different measures of cognitive ability, the most pronounced losses being in memory, recall and attention. And no, boxing was not mentioned in the study so y’all can rule out blows to the head as an explanation.
And this wouldn’t be the first study to show that prolonged, intense exercise may actually be detrimental to our health. Remember last year when it was discovered that running a marathon made people more prone to heart attacks and it took 3 months for the body to return to baseline afterward?
While the lead researcher Mary C. Tierney, PhD, cautions that one study does not prove causation and other variables may be present, she adds:
“It wouldn’t hurt to do a trade-off. Don’t be sedentary, but don’t push yourself too far either. After 15 minutes on the treadmill, take a brisk walk rather than a long run.”
The Downsides of the Study
- It only studied 90 women. That’s not a very big pool from which to make generalizations. And why only women?
- Other variables, such as stress, could be causing the women to exercise too much and it could be the stress doing the brain damage. (Although seeing as I, and many people I know, use strenuous exercise as a way to moderate stress this doesn’t really help.)
- It was based on the women’s recall of how much and how intensely they had exercised over the past few years. Self reporting is notoriously inaccurate. (Although one would assume women would would lie saying they’d done more exercise than they really had, not less thereby reinforcing the study’s results.)
- It only talked about cardio. Does weight lifting affect this phenomenon at all?
The Upsides of the Study
- It has a scientific premise backed by other research. The study is based on previous research that showed that strenuous exercise reduces breast cancer risk by reducing estrogen levels. Unfortunately estrogen protects brain function so long-term estrogen reduction would, theoretically, lead to brain deterioration. Which is what the study found.
- This is not justification to sit on your butt. The findings support other studies that have found moderate exercise to enhance cognitive function. In fact, the more moderate exercise a woman did, the sharper her memory.
- Researchers did account for “age, education, smoking, and other risk factors for cognitive impairment.”
- The study is backed by animal research that showed similar findings in rats.
So much for the “go hard or go home” mentality. Seeing as I am one of those people who likes to push myself till I puke and loves nothing more than a really intense workout, this is not good research news for me. Back when I was in eating disorder counseling for compulsive over exercise, I remember my therapists telling me all the ways that strenuous exercise harmed the body and while impaired cognitive function wasn’t on their list then (although amenorrhea, injuries, heart damage and other fun things were), that reason might have been the one that would have affected me the most.
You know that game everyone plays: Would You Rather? Basically you make up two awful scenarios and then ask the person which one they would rather do. My kids adore this game – their fave is “Would you rather jump into a volcano or have a boulder of poo fall on your head?” But one I’ve heard a lot of adults ask is the sobering, “Would you rather get Alzheimer’s (where you lose your mind but keep your body) or Parkinson’s (where you lose bodily control but keep your sanity)?” At the risk of sounding insensitive to the horror of either disorder (please don’t e-mail me or comment than I’m making a joke at the expense of people with a serious illness – truly, I do not think this is funny), I’ve always answered Parkinson’s. Not that I want either one but my mental acuity is far more important to me than my body.
Thankfully, if the findings of this research are true, the answer is simple: get plenty of moderate exercise but keep the strenuous stuff low and short. Either that or be born with a freakishly large heart like Lance Armstrong so you don’t need the drugs to do the exercise.
Your turn: What do you think of this study? Does it support what you already thought or was it as surprising to you as it was to me? And, if you must, Volcano or Poo Boulder?