Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This quote from Dylan Thomas captures the philosophy under pinning these Newsletters. Daniel Levitin, in his excellent book on the neuroscience of aging, captures the idea in a different way:
“Aging is an irreversible and inescapable process. But the effects of aging are, in some cases, reversible and, if not completely escapable, at least subject to delay”
These Newsletters are about maximizing healthy aging of the mind and body by maintaining our ability to consume. Our worlds are curated by service firms (See Newsletter #008 ). Consuming is an integral part of our lives especially if we live in a city. The Newsletters are about the slowing of the ageing process by modern medicine in the last thirty years. About the dangers of accepting old and outdated stereotypes. Third (and Fourth Agers) have the right to continue to consume in the way they want.
Why Exercise is Not Activity
The body and the mind are not separate. We like to separate these ideas but operationally they are one. The biggest single determinant of cognitive ability is the body. It provides the oxygen needed to “feed” the brain (see Newsletter #023). Adults between the ages of 60 and 80, can increase the size of their brains by regular aerobic exercise. Amongst other benefits their frontal cortex grows. The best way to learn something new is to engage in physical activity before starting. The body can directly influence our cognitive capacity.
Humans were not made to sit around. The brain and body evolved to move us around. To take us away from danger. To take us to sources of food and to help us find mates. The brains job is to organize that movement. Certainly it needs oxygenated blood. The fitter we are the more oxygen our bodies can provide. But it also needs to be stimulated with the tasks for which it was created. It needs new and different environments to explore. It can be a walk that engages all the senses and all the problem solving capabilities of the brain. The walk can in be in a country lane or a complex department store or mall. Such explorations have two beneficial effects. The exercise improves our ability to send oxygen to the brain. It also provides the kind of activity needed to stimulate the brain that going to the gym will not.
The fifth floor of the Aeon shopping Mall in Tokyo is dedicated to the “Grand Generation”. The mall stocks merchandise suitable for the aging. Everything from highly decorative walking sticks to a supermarket specializing in food sold in individual portions. There are multiple coffee shops. It opens earlier in the morning to fit the circadian cycles of its customers. At 7.30 am everyday there are public exercise classes and special promotions that run until 9am. The aisles have a 180m carpeted walking track, marked with distances. It provides a safe and dry place to exercise all year round. The owners have accepted the inevitable and turned it to their advantage, unlike their US counterparts.
In the “Wars of the Mall Walkers” US Mall owners tried to hold back the over 65’s .It seems Third Agers use the malls as part of their exercise program. In the early mornings there are crowds of them walking. Malls are warm in winter and cool in summer. They are comfortable and protected from the elements. They have walking surfaces that are smooth and free of obstructions. None of these are available on the average sidewalk. The enthusiastic walker, particularly in the Northern United States in the winter or in the heat of the summer in the South needs such a space. The problem for Mall owners is whether to turn a blind eye to this “pirate” use of their space. Many complain that parking spaces, close to entrances, are blocked early in the morning. Walkers do not even buy a coffee or drink. Several Mall owners have tried to ban the practice. The response was swift: boycotts and bad publicity.
On the fifth floor of the Aeon mall there is also a gym. In a recent documentary they interviewed Nemeto Kazue a fit and active 82 year old ex tax officer. She comes to the Mall every day. She spend 3-5 hours mostly in the gym. The gym is staffed with young, hip and fit trainers. They take her through resistance training and light aerobic exercises. She says she comes because she wants to stay fit like her late mother who was active until the age of 98. She also thinks the trainers are “cute” and are like grandchildren to her. Hopefully she explores the rest of the floor and generates the kind of activity she needs to feed her brain.
Activity involves “control” over the environment (see Newsletter #009). We get huge satisfaction from “getting things done”. We have an underlying need to feel in control of the world around us. Our sense of agency is important throughout our lives. If we make some of the toughest decisions ourselves we can still feel in control. People who decide for themselves to enter sheltered accommodation stay healthier longer. Keeping a sense of agency or control is an integral part of maintaining cognitive health.
“Burning and Raging” is not hard work.
Several studies have shown how effective even a small amount of “activity” can be. Two groups of older people took the same amount of exercise while walking around an outdoor landscape. One group was allowed to explore the space and walk where they wanted. The second group were constrained to walk a fixed circuit on a rectangular path. They took a creativity test immediately after the walk. The group that could explore outscored the other group significantly.
Studies have also shown that even a small amount of exercise can help. A 2018 study compared the memory function for two older groups. One sat on an exercise cycle but did not pedal. The other pedalled but so slowly it barely raised their heart rate. They were then given a simple pictured based memory test. The “light exercise” group outperformed the sitting group. Brain scans showed that the light exercise produced visible improvements in the memory circuits of the brain.
Even the smallest amounts of exercise and activity can improve the functioning of the brain.
Second Thoughts on 10,000 steps per Day
Where did this target come from? We all use it (See Newsletter #023). Was there a series of large scale studies around the world that set this target? One of my readers sent me a recent article from the New Scientist which suggests otherwise. Apparently the number came from a marketing campaign for the first Japanese electronic pedometer. The manufacturers noticed that the Japanese character for 10,000 resembled a person walking. The “mampo-kei” (“10,000 steps meter”) was launched in the mid- sixties. The result forever locked the 10,000 step target into the world of pedometers, Fitbits and smart swatches.