Harvard Health Letter

In Brief: Looking for a panacea? Just keep on moving

It seems hardly a day goes by without a report of some kind about the benefits of physical activity. Here's a sampler of some findings:

  • According to a Mayo Clinic study, even small amounts of moderate exercise are associated with a 30% to 40% lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a less severe form of dementia than Alzheimer's disease. Moderate exercise includes activities like brisk walking, hiking, and playing doubles tennis.

  • Women can keep weight off by exercising, a Harvard study concluded, although it took an average of an hour a day of moderate-intensity exercise to do it. The bad news from this analysis of Women's Health Study data is that exercise by itself had no effect on weight control among heavy women (those with a body mass index greater than 25), who might want and need it the most.

  • A Johns Hopkins program that reduced bed rest and encouraged physical and occupational therapy lowered the incidence of delirium among ICU patients and shortened the average length of stay in the unit. The program had other elements that might be just as important as physical activity, including a shift away from continuous intravenous sedative and pain medications to "as needed" dosing. But the dangers of bed rest and not moving for long periods of time have been documented many times.

  • Parkinson's disease patients had fewer physical symptoms of the disease after participating in a 12-week program that included exaggerated-movement exercises and playing Nintendo Wii video games, according to a report presented at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in 2010. Parkinson's disease causes muscle rigidity and stiff movement. The exercise program encouraged patients to extend their leg and arm muscles by taking big steps and swinging their arms forcefully. Nintendo Wii was used because the games are controlled with arm and other movements, not just the thumbs. This study had no control group and was short, so firm conclusions can't be drawn, but it's intriguing.

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