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“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

– Bertrand Russell

Fitter, stronger bodies are great for enhancing health and wellbeing. It’s also understood that exercise primes the brain for better performance through increased cerebral blood flow, the effect of higher levels of IGF1 and BDNF that promote better neuronal health and function, neurogenesis (the production of new neurons), better mood and improved executive function.

Little wonder that any brain fitness program includes the recommendation of doing enough physical activity. While the gold standard is for a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week – that’s the huffy-puffy sort of exercise like running, cycling or swimming, there is growing evidence for including a couple of strength or resistance training sessions a week to improve brain performance.

The SMART trial found that improvement in cognitive function was related to muscle strength gains in a group of adults with diagnosed mild cognitive impairment.

What if exercise was prescribed as medicine to optimise cognitive performance, brain health and improved muscle strength?

Hot off the press, new research from the University of Sydney has shown strength training also has other significant health benefits. In this study of over 80,000 people, those who undertook strength training had a 23% reduction in premature death from any cause, and a 31% reduction in cancer-related death.

But if the thought of lifting weights puts you off, because you’re not into bodybuilding and big muscles, don’t worry that’s not a requirement.

And if you’re like me and find push-ups excruciatingly difficult, fear not because there’s one form of strength training you may be less familiar with, that’s less demanding on the body but has similar if not better beneficial effects for improving muscle strength and bone density, lowering blood pressure, improving insulin sensitivity, and blood lipid profiles.

And possibly something else.

Reducing the risk of cognitive decline.

In 2016, I became involved with the Stay Sharp program, a community initiative that provides a 12-week course aimed at keeping healthy ageing seniors – healthy; both physically, mentally and cognitively.

Each week the participants take part in one hour of exercise and one hour of a cognitively stimulating session that incorporates the different aspects of healthy nutrition, sleep, stress management, memory and social interaction that contribute to better brain health.

What makes this program unique is the form of exercise being taught.

It’s eccentric.

No, this isn’t about the Ministry of Silly Walks or behaving eccentrically. Eccentric exercise is different because we are used to exercising in a concentric fashion.

In eccentric exercise the movement works on stretching out the muscles against resistance
For example in a biceps curl using a dumbbell the concentric way of exercise is to bend the arm up towards the body. In the eccentric version it’s about straightening the arm from the bent position.

The reason eccentric exercise is being used in the Stay Sharp program is because Professor Ken Nosaka, one of the world’s leading researchers in eccentric exercise, is keen to find out whether eccentric exercise might help prevent cognitive decline because it is more cognitively demanding, you do have to concentrate on what you are doing.

It’s too early to tell yet but the results from the pilot study are encouraging because not only do the participants all appear to enjoy the exercise, it’s improving their balance and muscle strength and there is far less stress on the cardiovascular system.

Eccentric exercise isn’t just for the elderly. Iron men have been using it for eons. Professor Nosaka believes it is beneficial at all ages including childhood.

Try these eccentric exercises at home or work.

Take the stairs.

Here it’s about walking DOWN the stairs. If you’re on the fifteenth floor and the thought of walking down 15 flights is too much, why not walk the first 5 and then take the lift down to the ground floor. Or do the whole lot if you’re so inclined.

Sit down slowly.

When taking your seat, control your descent onto the seat, rather than just flopping down.

What you do need to know about eccentric exercise is it can feel as if you’re not working hard enough, because your heart rate doesn’t go up as much. That’s normal and eight to ten repetitions of each exercise is plenty.

The one thing you will notice when undertaking eccentric exercise for the first time is the higher degree of muscle soreness a day or two later. You have been warned!
That’s why it’s recommended you allow a couple of days for rest and recovery before undertaking a second session.

The ideal combo is to undertake a daily session of some form of aerobic activity and a couple of eccentric or other strength training sessions during the week.

Want to find out a bit more.
Here is Professor Ken talking in greater detail on the significance of eccentric exercise in the community-based program.

Brains flourish when we move more, and you don’t need a gym membership or fancy lycra pants to enjoy the benefits.

If thinking well and staying healthy is on your agenda to keep you at the top of your game, it’s time to rethink our approach to exercise and enjoy being a little more eccentric.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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