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Physical and mental exercise beneficial for older adults

Ellen Abbott
John Murray looks over a list of activities being offered at the senior living community where he lives with his wife

As America ages, more studies are being done on how activity can help reduce the impact of illness and chronic disease. Research shows both physical and mental exercise is a kind of medicine for older adults.

90-year old John Murray lives with his wife, in a senior living community near Syracuse. On any given Monday, he takes part in four different programs.

"At least one of them is water aerobics, another is another physical," said Murray. "A third is a tai chi type of operation, and a fourth is a mind twister. So that they’re constantly asking questions and you’re constantly giving answers."

Lisa Sonneborn of Clarity Clinical Research in Syracuse said activity like this can go a long way towards keeping older individuals as healthy as possible. Sonneborn’s research firm focuses specifically on brain health. She said there are eight pillars or habits that affect the brain. Among them are exercising both the body and the mind.

"Every time you’re moving and your heart is pumping, you are pumping blood, oxygenated blood, to your brain," said Sonnenborn. "So not only are you helping your muscles, you’re helping your brain. It’s all one system."

Sonneborn said research recommends 20 minutes of exercise three times a week for seniors, that can be modified to suit an individual's own abilities. Anything from walking to something like chair yoga.

As far as mental exercise, Sonneborn said trying new things is the best way to build strength in the neural pathways.

"Trying tasks with a hand you’re not necessarily good with. So if you’re right handed start a task with your left. It just stimulates your brain in different ways," said Sonnenborn. "Reading a book in a topic you’re not familiar with. Maybe trying to learn little bits of a new language. All of these things help to strengthen your brain in new ways."

Murray said he has more time for activities like this, and finds most of his fellow residents are happy to try anything.

"Many of us realize we have progressed. We have gone over a high point in our lives, and we’re in a different class," he said. "But we have wisdom. We think. We know what love is all about. I hope. We still want to grow."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.