Why Exercise is Great for The Brain

Residents at Youville Place in Lexington warm up for their morning Yoga class.Charles Dickens, one of the most brilliant voices of Victorian literature, had an unusual way of sparking new ideas. After a long day spent writing at his desk, the world-famous author would regularly set out on the streets of London and walk at a brisk pace. On these daily walks he would find himself dreaming up new characters and devising the next plot twist of a novel in progress.

Dickens’ walks were not just casual strolls. They were intensive physical feats that could last for hours. According to his own testimony in The Uncommercial Traveler, “My last special feat was turning out of bed at two, after a hard day, pedestrian and otherwise, and walking thirty miles into the country to breakfast.”

Dickens’ exercise habits may seem extreme, but they likely had a significant effect on his creative output. Neurologists have discovered that aerobic exercises such as walking, pedaling, swimming or jogging are associated with an array of cognitive benefits and that older adults have just as much to gain as any other age group. You may not be able to walk 30 miles like Dickens, but whatever you can do to elevate your heart rate for an extended period is likely to make you feel better and think more clearly.

Exercise Promotes Vascular Health in the Brain

There is a correlation between unhealthy capillaries in the brain and unhealthy synapses. When synapses get old from continually firing signals from one neuron to the next, they start to wear down and shrivel. This process results in cognitive decline, and seems to accelerate when the capillaries that deliver blood to the brain are unhealthy. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “autopsy studies show that as many as 80% of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also have cardiovascular disease.”

Aerobic exercise burns calories, reduces cholesterol and accelerates the heart rate, keeping blood vessels happy. As the heart pumps blood throughout the body, the capillaries in the brain are replenished and fortified, providing neurons with ongoing “fertilizer” and ensuring that their synapses remain strong.


There is compelling evidence that exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells – in rats, at least. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Jyvaskyla tested a large group of mature rats, dividing the critters into three test groups. One group jogged long distances on a wheel every day. Another lifted tiny weights with their tails (yes, you read that correctly!) while climbing a wall, and a third group engaged in interval training. A fourth control group did not exercise at all.

The scientists wanted to monitor which form of exercise led to the most significant growth of new brain cells – a process called “neurogenesis.” They were able to track brain cell growth by injecting the rats with a special dye that would mark new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain we use for memory and learning. Ultimately, this study found that aerobic exercise can “double or even triple the number of neurons that appear afterward in the animals’ hippocampus compared to the brains of animals that remain sedentary.”

While neurologists have long suspected that exercise was important, they now believe that it can actually stimulate the growth of new cells in the hippocampus. Incidentally, the hippocampus is the first area of the brain to be attacked by Alzheimer’s disease.

Reduced Stress

Chronic stress overloads the body with cortisol, the hormone that triggers our “fight or flight” response. When stressful situations overwhelm us, our ability to think abstractly and perform complicated tasks diminishes. Too much cortisol over the long term has been linked to adverse effects such as high blood pressure, depression and dementia.

Exercise helps the body fight stress in multiple ways. When we are active, the body releases a stream of endorphins that can improve mood throughout the day. At the same time, many find that exercise has a relaxing effect. The reason for this is somewhat counterintuitive.  Because exercise puts strain on the body, it catalyzes the release of cortisol, the “stress hormone.”  Over time, the regimented exposure to cortisol during exercise helps us to increase our threshold for stressful situations encountered in daily life.  

If you live for your intellectual pursuits, or simply enjoy having a sharp mind, you should embrace a routine of exercise. At Youville, we offer structured exercise opportunities six days a week. Residents can start their mornings with Stretch & Flex, Balance Challenge, Yoga or Broadway Seated Dance. In the afternoon,  residents have the option to join Walking Club during the spring and summer months, or a group exercise class led by Forever Fit.



Coloring Yourself Curious: Exploring the Adult Coloring Craze

Have you heard about the “adult coloring craze”?  Believe it or not, adults young and old are getting out their colored pencils and buying coloring books like never before.  In the process, they have helped to fuel an emerging, multimillion dollar industry of adult coloring books.


In January of 2016, five of the top 15 best-selling books on Amazon were coloring books for adults. The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and other widely distributed publications have all printed stories about adult coloring within the past year. 


What, you may wonder, makes for an “adult” coloring book? According to Johanna Basford, author of the ground-breaking Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, the difference lies in the artwork. Adult coloring books are more “sophisticated – no images of a car or a bunny with a bow in its hair,” she says.


Basford might well be regarded as the inventor of the entire adult coloring genre. Her Secret Garden has sold two million copies since it first appeared on shelves in 2013. The follow-up, Enchanted Forest, has proven to be just as popular, selling a quarter of a million copies in its first month of publication last year. 


The illustrations in Secret Garden feature highly detailed, outdoor scenes based on the artist’s expansive home garden. These intricate landscapes are inviting to the eye, and many find it hard to stop coloring them. In keeping with the book’s title, Basford has populated her scenes with “secrets” that colorists can uncover as they go. Secret Garden includes a catalogue of hidden items to be found throughout the book, lending an element of pursuit to each page. 


While Basford’s designs would probably not hold the fleeting attention of a child, their intricacy is the main draw for adults. Katie Blanchard, Director of Programs at Youville House, recently took time after a busy day to color in a page from Secret Garden. “When I first looked at the page it was a bit overwhelming,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d be able to sit still for it. But after about ten minutes my mind calmed down and I got really engaged in filling in the shapes.” 


Just one page can require multiple sittings and hours of focused activity to complete. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the finished product can be a source of genuine accomplishment. 


Explaining the Trend
As more adults rediscover the simple appeal of coloring, professionals are weighing in on the psychological underpinnings and health benefits of this trend. According to Scott Bea, PSYD, a clinical psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic,  “Coloring draws attention away from yourself and helps you stay in the present moment. In this way, it is very much like a meditative exercise. When your mind is focused on a simple activity and not disturbed by thoughts and appraisals, your brain tends to relax. The fact that coloring has a predictable outcome also can be relaxing. It is hard to mess up, and, even if you do, there is no real consequence. As a result, adult coloring can be a wonderful lark, rather than an arduous test of your capacities.”


Julie Beck, associate editor of The Atlantic, believes that engaging with interesting patterns is inherently relaxing. Beck’s article, “The Zen of Adult Coloring Books,” documents her own conversion from skeptic to a full-fledged colorist. She writes that adult coloring books are part of today’s “trend of meditation and mindfulness that’s been going for some time now, one response among many to the high levels of stress many adults are living with.” 


Psychologists tend to agree with this meditative take on the coloring craze. Dr. Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist in New York, says that “it’s the repetition that’s key to the relaxation response.” Michaelis and others have cited Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, in connection with adult coloring. Always ahead of his time, one of Jung’s relaxation exercises for patients was to “prescribe” them intricate mandalas to color. 


The Social Aspect of Coloring
In addition to helping people relax, coloring lends itself to social interaction. A Minnesota woman named Jenny Fenlason had no trouble starting an adult coloring club. “I thought coloring would be a fun way to get together and do something that engages a little bit of your creative side, but allows you to talk,” she told Minnesota Public Radio. “I threw out the idea and a lot of people were interested.” Fueled by social media, her coloring club has since expanded, with chapters springing up in Las Vegas, New York, and even London!


Last month Youville, a group of residents formed their own coloring club. Supplied with colored pencils and a few pages from Basford’s acclaimed books, they spent a recent Wednesday afternoon collectively contemplating their work as it emerged on the page. 



Be Good to Your Heart: Celebrating American Heart Month

In 1963, Lyndon Johnson became our first president to designate February as “American Heart Month.”  At the time, heart disease accounted for over half of all annual deaths in the United States. President Johnson noted in his proclamation that “over one-half of the ten million Americans afflicted by the cardiovascular diseases are stricken during their most productive years, thereby causing a staggering physical and economic loss to the nation.”

Johnson – who himself would die of a heart attack at the age of 64 – knew that we could only begin to fight heart disease by starting a national conversation about its dangers, its prevalence, its underlying causes and risk factors.

Every year since Johnson’s first proclamation, U.S. Presidents have declared February “American Heart Month” and urged Americans to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. This decades-long conversation has helped inspire millions to pay closer attention to health and has arguably contributed to our increased life expectancy. However, heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death for both men and women, accounting for one in three deaths nationwide. The conversation continues. We know today that the heart is a complicated organ, and that a surprising number of one’s life choices have an impact on its health.

What is Heart Disease?

Cardiologists define heart disease as a range of conditions that affect the heart’s ability to function properly. This includes diseases of the cardiovascular system as well as the heart itself.  The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, characterized by the buildup of fatty deposits called “plaque” in the arteries that feed blood to the heart.  Narrowed arteries can result in inadequate blood flow to the heart, leading to chest pain, fatigue, dizziness, or shortness of breath. Other symptoms might include a feeling of numbness in arms or legs, pain in the neck, jaw, throat, or back. A heart attack occurs when an artery becomes completely blocked.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of heart disease is that it can progress over decades without noticeable signs or symptoms. Often people are not aware that they have a problem until they experience a frightening coronary event. The good news is you can start acting now to improve your heart health and reduce your exposure to risk factors.

Check your Blood Pressure 

A low blood pressure is one of the most reliable signs of a healthy heart.  If your blood pressure reading is below 120/80, you can consider yourself in the “heart healthy” camp! Anything higher means that you are at risk for hypertension. A reading over 130/90 means that you are at risk for a coronary event. If your blood pressure is high, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor about ways to lower it.

Pay Attention to Diet

Avoid foods that are high in fat and cholesterol. Limit your intake of red meat, heavy sauces, butter and other fatty or oily foods.  Limiting salt in your diet will help keep your arteries healthy and blood pressure low. Most processed packaged foods, such as microwaveable meals and potato chips, include high amounts of sodium.  Instead of eating another bag of potato chips, turn to natural, high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables.

Quit Smoking

Smoking causes many health complications and greatly reduces life expectancy. In addition to numerous types of cancer, smoking is also a major cause of stroke and heart disease.


For older adults, simply engaging in light physical activity like gardening or walking has been shown to have positive effects on heart health. More strenuous exercising also improves cardiovascular health. Be aware of your physical limitations and consult with your physician if you are nervous about your fitness level. Both Youville communities offer morning exercise classes such as Yoga, Broadway Seated Dance, Balance Challenge and Stretch & Flex.

 Stay Connected to Your Faith Tradition

Spiritual routines such as prayer and meditation make us happier and healthier. An often-cited study funded by the National Institute of Health found that those who prayed regularly were 40%  less likely to have high blood pressure. A report in Psychology Today stated that concern for others expressed in prayer “seemed to be contributing to the stress-buffering effects of prayer.” Many other studies have linked prayer and altruism to clearer thinking, lower blood pressure and reduced stress (stress is a significant risk factor for heart disease).

Like prayer, meditation has helped many to achieve a calmer state of mind, reduced stress and clearer thinking.  Many studies have demonstrated that meditation inhibits the body’s production of cortisol,  a stress hormone that is detrimental to heart health. Two popular schools of meditation are mindfulness meditation, a technique that involves focusing the mind on the present, and mantra meditation, one that involves the mental repetition of a word, sound or phrase.

Youville House in Cambridge and Youville Place in Lexington offer a variety of opportunities to stay spiritually engaged. Catholic Mass is held regularly at both communities. Residents at Youville Place can gather for Centering Prayer every week, while Rosary and guided meditation are offered at Youville House.

The heart is clearly a complicated organ! As we’ve seen, it responds to physical exercise, diet, and even spiritual practices. This month, try incorporating all of these elements into a heart-healthy lifestyle that works for you. 


Youville Centenarians Celebrate Life & Longevity 

Youville centenarians Charlotte Taylor, Roberta Macdonald and Sumiko Jarmain-Otani toast to life and longevity at Youville House.Did you know that Youville House in Cambridge has three residents that are over the age of 100? A few weeks ago, we paid tribute to our three centenarians with a special “100-year Happy Hour.” Seated at the table of honor were Sumiko Jarmain-Otani (102 years old), Roberta Macdonald (101) and Charlotte Taylor (101).  Accompanied by family members, staff and fellow residents, the three centenarians were in good spirits as they enjoyed champagne, hors d’oeuvres and a room full of friends.

As the theme was “celebrating 100 years of life,” Dinah Olanoff, Youville’s Senior Director of Marketing and the Master of Ceremonies for the event, recounted historical events from the last century. She asked each centenarian if they had any advice to share about living a long life. This exercise proved that there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to living a long and satisfying life. Sumi claimed that she had always “taken things easy,” whereas Charlotte remarked, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken anything easy!” When it came time for Roberta to offer advice, she seized the moment (and the microphone), delivering a heartfelt speech on the importance of family. “The thing about family is that they are always there, and they are all yours!” she said. She also touched on the importance of avoiding unnecessary anxiety: “You can worry yourself to sleep at night over something, but when you wake up, your problems will still be there.” 

We hope you enjoy these pictures from the afternoon! 


An Introduction to Tai Chi for Arthritis 

Youville House and Youville Place will each host a special presentation in February, introducing the Tai Chi for Arthritis program. Led by Phyllis Rittner, a certified Tai Chi for Arthritis instructor, these presentations will introduce the basic concepts of Tai Chi, Qigong, and the application of these ancient disciplines in treating the joint pain and stiffness associated with arthritis.

photo credit: Steve Rouse, Southern Miss Public Relations

Developed in 1998 by Dr. Philip Lam and a team of medical experts, Tai Chi for Arthritis uses a 12-step “Sun Style” Tai Chi, along with modified Qigong based exercises. This method has been recommended by the Center for Disease Control as an alternative therapy for arthritis that may reduce chronic pain, improve balance and increase flexibility. According to Rittner, this program “caters to a wide range of physical abilities. No one is ever excluded due to physical limitations as everyone participates according to their own comfort level through individual modifications.”

A free, weekly Tai Chi for Arthritis course may be offered at Youville following this presentation, based on the level of interest expressed by residents. If you are interested in what Tai Chi can do to alleviate or reduce your arthritis, register for one of the talks below:

Youville Place: Wednesday, February 11th at 2:00 PM

Youville House: Friday, February 13th at 2:00 PM


About Arthritis

Arthritis affects joints throughout the body, in a variety of ways. Symptoms can range from slight joint pain and stiffness to severe physical disability. Approximately one in five U.S. adults live with some form of arthritis.

The most common forms are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage in a joint wears away causing the bones to deteriorate. In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the lining surrounding the joint, known as the synovial membrane. The resulting inflammation of this lining causes pain, bone erosion and in some cases joint deformity.

Other than age, a variety of risk factors have been linked to arthritis, including family history, obesity, and repetitive physical strain on a joint. While there is no cure, there are many different ideas about how to alleviate the painful symptoms.