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Elizabeth Knebli, right, and Isobel Gallagher warm up before a yoga class in Toronto. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)
Elizabeth Knebli, right, and Isobel Gallagher warm up before a yoga class in Toronto. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)

Yoga, films, art class: For a healthy retirement, exercise body and brain Add to ...

Elizabeth Knebli takes her exercise regimen very seriously. “It took me four years to figure out that retirement is another job,” the former executive says with a laugh. “There are all sorts of things you need to learn.”

On a sunny morning in November at a recreation centre in midtown Toronto, the 71-year-old has just finished a two-hour city-run yoga class. “Mondays, it’s yoga; Tuesdays, tai chi and on Friday, low-impact aerobics,” she says.

Job No. 1 after retirement was figuring out how to integrate fitness into her week, “anchoring Monday to Friday.”

In addition to making her body limber, Ms. Knebli says exercise has opened doors to new friendships and social activities. Flanked by her yoga friends, who go out for breakfast after their class, she’s keenly aware of the dangers of isolation.

“It gets you out of the house. If you sit at home, you end up living between four walls. You start to forget how to talk.”

Isobel Gallagher, 76, agrees. The Toronto resident also does yoga twice a week, while filling her social calendar with films, performances and volunteering. “When I have too many down days, I get bored.”

She takes classes designed for retirees at York University’s Glendon campus and at the University of Toronto, and finds they give her the impetus she needs to stay stimulated. “I’ll say: ‘Do I really want to go out in the snow?’” Ms. Gallagher says. “Then you feel a sense of accomplishment when you get there.”

What Ms. Knebli and Ms. Gallagher have discovered is that exercise and brain-stimulating activities are the glue that holds together the mind and body past 65, something that’s well-documented in scientific literature.

According to a 2014 article in Canadian Geriatrics by Vancouver researchers Dr. Marisa Wan and Dr. Roger Wong, their review of numerous studies found that physical exercise can have profound effects on the cardiovascular system, lowering blood pressure, improving the efficiency of the heart and reducing arterial plaques. It can also improve muscle mass and balance, reducing the chance of falls that cause many seniors to land in long-term facilities or hospitals.

“Older people who have been identified as recurrent fallers, for those who have been exposed to an exercise program, there is evidence that suggests they are less likely to fall,” says Dr. Wong, clinical professor of geriatric medicine at the University of British Columbia. He says it’s postulated that exercise helps at “the muscle level, the bone level – but also at the heart and blood-vessel level, and the brain level.”

But not all exercise is equal, cautions Dr. Laurie Mallery, an internist geriatrician at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “Generally, we tend to under-exercise older people … we can improve the manner in which we do it.”

Dr. Mallery says that while many programs focus on low-intensity activities, weight training and Pilates can push seniors a little more, maximizing the benefits such as muscle strengthening and improved postural alignment.

“Being functionally active – it dictates their quality of living,” says Judy Chu, a registered kinesiologist at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto who tailors exercise programs for clients 50 and older. “Inactivity is like smoking – it creates lack of function and lack of function becomes a barrier to quality of life.”

In addition to keeping the body fit, exercise may also help protect the brain, and that fascinates Dr. Tarek Rajii, chief of geriatric psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. He says it’s believed that physical exercise releases chemicals related to the neuroplasticity of the brain and improves circulation, potentially staving off anxiety, depression and cognitive problems such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Part of what we’re doing when we’re engaging in a physical activity is there’s a mental activity happening,” says Dr. Rajii.

And mental exercise – such as learning a language, attending an art class, going to a lecture or watching a movie – can also go a long way in preserving brain health, as can merely interacting with others at the actual event. “Mental inactivity is a risk factor for dementia,” says Dr. Rajii.

He’s currently conducting a large-scale, randomized, double-blind study aimed at preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s that began this past spring in which people with mild memory problems or a history of depression are enrolled in an eight-week, five-days-a-week “brain camp.”

Participants in the $10-million, five-year study perform two hours of mental exercises daily in a class setting while wearing electrodes that send signals to the brain to “prime the neuroplasticity.” Once they complete the eight-week period, they get “booster” classes every six months. Their memory is assessed once a year.

Feedback has been positive. “They feel they are enjoying it – they feel they are benefiting on an individual level,” Dr. Rajii says.

Ms. Gallagher is certainly convinced of the benefits of exercising her body and mind. “I will go until I can’t any more.”

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