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Exercise pays off, if you can remember to do it

They call it exercise. Those in the group adhere to the broadest definition of that term. In most dictionaries it reads like this: "an activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness."
The group includes both men and women and has met on a regular basis for some years. The members don’t have any formal alliance or structure. They don’t even have a stated purpose, but if they did, they could consider "In union there is strength." That would indicate that when you are engaged in some boring and repetitive activity, it is made more palatable if done with other people, rather than alone.
When they started years ago, they called it running. There are countless runners today, but when the group started it was early, still an odd sight to see some middle-aged specimen running down the road in what, at a distance, appeared to be underwear.
"We soon realized that not everyone is built for running, but we considered that a non-essential detail," one of the members recalled. "In fact, if you abide by the theory that mandates ‘the lean horse for the long race,’ only two relatively new members of our group are built for running. The rest of us don’t fit the model. Yet we persevered."
As time went on, a major semantic change evolved. They never discussed the change; it just materialized. No longer did they describe the activity as running. They called it jogging. Again we can turn to the dictionary for a precise explanation: "running at a steady, gentle pace, especially on a regular basis as a form of physical exercise."
The group has been seen in action on various streets and avenues in nearly any kind of weather. Perhaps you have noticed it. The members have been befriended by mail carriers, various delivery people and prospectors-busy collecting returnable bottles-pushing grocery carts. They are frequently hailed by residents who wonder who they are, where they came from and where they are heading. They have occasionally been hollered at by some driver having a bad day, but that doesn’t bother them.
What bothered them was this: "From time to time some random witness would say, ‘I saw you walking down the street the other day.’"
That couldn’t have been them. It must have been some others.
But it was, and it is.
Yes, the velocity has slowed. There is still motivation, but the motion has diminished. They are still picking them up and laying them down with the same dedication, but at an adjusted pace.
The group’s members say that could be considered the bad news. But they have always adopted a positive attitude, so they insist there is related good news, news worth spreading. It involves the hippocampus.
It turns out that while most of us never realized it, each of us has his or her own hippocampus. It is a part of the brain, essential in the formation, retention and recollection of memories. In healthy adults, the hippocampus begins to atrophy and shrink around the age of 55 or 60. I cringe when I hear atrophy discussed in relation to any muscle or organ, but especially the brain.
The good news is that psychologists who have been conducting tests are suggesting that the hippocampus can be "modestly expanded" and memory improved by regular walking. A group of seniors who walked 40 minutes a day over a year were actually able to expand their hippocampi. The expansion wasn’t huge, but it was significant because while the hippocampi of sedentary others were shrinking, these expanded.
I pass along this information because many people today are worried about their memories; with people living longer, there is more concern about memory.
Consider the experience of a friend who was constantly misplacing his keys. It was very upsetting to him, even though the keys were always found. He spoke to a therapist about it and was advised not to worry. It is common, the doctor said, but if you find your keys in the refrigerator, then you may have a problem.
The members of the walking group claim to have amended their approach in the wake of that news. It will now be this: Whenever a member can’t remember something, no matter how unimportant, they are going out for another walk.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

6/17/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.


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