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Lifelong exercise to boost the brain
Jenny Etnier: University of North Carolina
BY PETER BOWES | LOS ANGELES | JUNE 2, 2021 | 0700 PT
Making exercise a daily routine, from childhood, could be the key to preventing or slowing down some of the diseases of old age. Multiple studies have demonstrated the efficacy of physical activity, in improving cognitive health, throughout the human lifespan. Jenny Etnier is a professor of sport and exercise psychology in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina. Working with children and older adults she is an advocate for exercise to nurture the mind and stimulate a healthy brain. In this LLAMA podcast episode, with Peter Bowes, Dr. Etnier explains the lifetime benefits of physical education in schools; the meaning of mental toughness; and the reason why we should all enjoy a few minutes of “pure joy” every day.
Recorded: May 4, 2021 | Read a transcript
Connect with Jenny Etnier: Bio | Books: Bring Your ‘A’ Game and Coaching for the Love of the Game | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook
Topics covered in this interview include:
- Helping children have a more positive youth sport experience
- Taking a lifetime approach to physical activity for all ages, for mental health
- Making exercise a lifetime habit
- The value of physical education in schools.
- Jenny’s exposure to exercise leading to a lifetime of sport and coaching.
- Parents’ priorities and goals for their children and sports.
- Learning how to self reference for personal joy and improvement.
- Walking basketball – why not?
- The mental health benefits of physical activity, movement and exercise.
- How our lives have changed, for the better, during Covid, emphasizing exercise.
- Quantifying the cognitive benefits of physical activity.
- Mental toughness and the notion that it also applies to how we live our daily lives – time management and stress.
- Physical activity to delay the onset of symptoms for people at risk from Alzheimer’s.
- Making a regular commitment to sport with a partner.
- Future studies: the timing of a single session of exercise for better memory the next day.
“Make sure that you find some minutes to have some pure joy every day”Jenny Etnier
- Effects of an aerobic fitness test on short- and long-term memory in elementary-aged children
- Exercise, cognitive function, and the brain: Advancing our understanding of complex relationships
- An External Focus of Attention is Effective for Balance Control when Sleep-deprived.
- Motivating Mature Adults to be Physically Active.
- The Physical Activity and Alzheimer’s Disease (PAAD) Study: Cognitive outcomes.
- This episode is brought to you in association with Clinique La Prairie, the award-winning spa-clinic – and pioneering health and wellness destination – nestled on the shores of Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. Combining preventative medicine with bespoke lifestyle and nutrition plans, Clinique La Prairie offers a holistic approach to living fuller, healthier and longer lives.
The Live Long and Master Aging podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor.
Jenny Etnier: [00:00:00] Physically active children, I believe, are building a healthier, more well-connected brain that is going to serve them well during young adulthood, but will also provide them a higher starting point when they do start to see some more negative types of declines.
Peter Bowes: [00:00:21] Hello again and welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. I’m Peter Bowes. This is where we explore the science and stories behind human longevity.
SPONSOR MESSAGE: [00:00:31] This episode is brought to you in association with Clinique La Prairie. The award winning Spa Clinic and pioneering health and wellness destination nestled on the shores of Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. Combining preventative medicine with bespoke lifestyle and nutrition plans, Clinique La Prairie offers a holistic approach to living fuller, healthier and longer lives.
Peter Bowes: [00:00:55] Now, the benefits of exercise are often measured in physical terms, and by that I mean the speed of an endurance athlete, the strength of a weightlifter, or the physique of a dancer for you and I exercise walking, running, cycling, swimming. It works our muscles. It contributes to a healthy heart and lungs. And if we’re getting, what, a good half an hour a day, we’re probably on the right track. But what about the impact of activity, physical exertion on our cognitive health as we grow older, our memory or ability to delay diseases like Alzheimer’s? My guest today is Dr. Jenny Etnier. She is a professor of sport and exercise physiology in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina. She’s also an advocate for exercise to nurture our minds, as well as many scientific papers. Dr. Etnier has written two books, Bring Your ‘A’ Game and Coaching for the Love of the Game: A Practical Guide for Working with young athletes. Dr. Etnier – welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast.
Jenny Etnier: [00:01:59] Thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Peter Bowes: [00:02:01] Very good to talk to you. In terms of your books, are you talking about any particular game or sport in general?
Jenny Etnier: [00:02:07] No, it’s about sport in general. And I’ve got children myself who have come through the youth sport model. And so I wrote those two books really to try to help children have a more positive youth sport experience. So the first one, Bring Your A Game is actually a tool to bring sport psychology skills to young athletes, tweenagers, if you will, and teenagers. And then the second book is actually written for the coaches to help remind coaches why they’re coaching, which is typically to try to ensure that the children and the young athletes have a positive experience.
Peter Bowes: [00:02:43] I think what’s fascinating about your work is that you focus on people of vastly different age ranges. Now, clearly, your books are focused at young people, but you’ve got an intense interest in older people as well. And I mentioned those some of those chronic diseases as we get older of described as diseases of the mind, Alzheimer’s, dementia, that kind of thing, and the value of exercise.
Jenny Etnier: [00:03:04] Yeah, I mean, I really am thrilled to be able to take a life span approach in the work that I do. And as you mentioned early on, I’m a huge advocate of physical activity and that has benefits for us across the lifespan. So it has benefits for children, for young adults, for middle aged adults and for older adults. And, you know, some of my books are sort of written to try to motivate and improve the physical activity experience for kids, because I know it’s so important that they get off to the right start. But the reason it’s important, of course, is because then I hope that they’ll maintain a lifetime of physical activity, participation for the physical benefits that you mentioned, but also the mental health benefits, including, importantly, the cognitive benefits that we `see. Exactly.
Peter Bowes: [00:03:46] I think that’s a great point. And it’s one that I make time and time again on this podcast. We talk about the interventions that could help us live a longer, healthier life, maximize our healthspan often it isn’t until people get into the 40s, 50s, 60s, until they even start thinking in terms of their own longevity. And maybe it’s because they’ve discovered gray hair or the parents, their parents are moving into the next phase of their lives. They suddenly realize that they’re not 21 again and that things are changing. And so I repeat, time and time again, the younger we are to start thinking about these things and to start exercising perhaps more seriously than we have done so far, is ultimately going to be a good thing for our longevity.
Jenny Etnier: [00:04:25] Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad. I’m so glad that’s the message that you’re sharing, because that is so true. You know, we may we may see the benefits more quickly with older adults, perhaps because they’ve possibly allowed their health to fail somewhat. And so the benefits are kind of there for the taking. But even with young adults, you know, it’s it’s partly sort of making it a habit so that it’s a lifestyle for you, you know, adopting a form of physical activity that you enjoy, that you can stick with and doing that at an early age. I’m a huge advocate as well of physical education in the schools because I think that the opportunity is there for us to provide children with a variety of skill sets, which then allows them the freedom to choose the activities as young adults and into older adulthood that they enjoy and that they and that they have fun with, you know, whether it’s golf or tennis or pickup basketball or walking or cycling, you know, and all the activities that you mentioned, all of those have benefits for us. And so it’s a matter of finding out which ones do we really enjoy so that we can stick with them.
Peter Bowes: [00:05:28] Well, let’s delve into that a little bit more in a moment. First of all, just tell me a little bit about yourself. You’re obviously an athlete. You’re a coach. What is your background and how did you develop an interest in this area?
Jenny Etnier: [00:05:40] Yeah, so fun. While if you let me go back far enough, I’ll tell you that both both of my parents were athletes. They were athletes in high school. They were athletes when they were raising me as a young child. And so fortunately for me, you know, I can remember. My mom teaching me tennis and my dad, you know, throwing softballs with me in the front yard and those early exposures then allowed me the opportunity to be an athlete in high school. And I was a three sport athlete lettered in three different sports in high school. And then I got to play soccer collegiately and semi-professionally a little bit. And then all of my coaching really comes through soccer. I started coaching as a teenager, actually, and then have coached at the youth level all the way through the collegiate level. But the other thing I think that that that I really get a kick out of like I can’t watch people play sports recreationally. I mean, I’m not skillful enough to to give feedback on every sport at a high level, but I love watching people try to perform sports skills. And so I I was playing pickleball this weekend with my mother, who’s in her 80s. We were playing pickleball with some other women and a gentleman who are probably in their 50s and early 60s. And one of the women was serving off the wrong foot. And I just like had to ask her, why are you swerving off the wrong foot? That’s so interesting. You know, and I so I love I love talking about physical activity. I love talking about movement. I love trying to help people figure out ways that they can stay active and and and have a good time doing it.
Peter Bowes: [00:07:09] And as you look back on your childhood days and the level of sport that you enjoyed, the variety of sports that you enjoyed, maybe not at a competitive stage, just just enjoying sport and playing for the sake of it. Compare that with what you observe about young people and the way that children behave today. How big a difference is that?
Jenny Etnier: [00:07:29] Yeah, that’s a great question, Peter. You know, I think one of the things that’s really interesting is how prominent the notion of a need for early specialization is amongst families and and how many people seem to have goals for their children to play at a really high level in sport. And, you know, if you stop and think about it, if you certainly if you just look at the percentages, you know, what percentage of youth athletes are going to play professional sports or have accomplished sports careers less than one percent. So so let’s think about this parents, right. If if if the likelihood is insanely slim that your child is going to have some sort of a sports career, then what is the reason for putting them in, you know, tiny tots soccer? What is the reason for putting them, you know, in a little gym program for gymnastics? Well, I imagine that the reason is because, you know, of all the incredible benefits that children can get, both from being physically active and from learning how to be a good sport, learning how to compete, learning how to challenge themselves. So if we you know, if we focus on those as sort of the most important goals, then this drive for early specialization, I think should go away. And I think parents should realize, you know, the best thing I can do for my child is to give them early exposure to a variety of sports so that they will have growing confidence in their ability to move their body in space to manipulate objects. You know, the types of things where, you know, they allow a child to just go into the into their driveway and shoot baskets and get joy from that. Right. And feel a sense of accomplishment from that. I’ve tried to do that with my kids. And I am so, you know, I feel this incredible sense of accomplishment because my children can play a lot of different sports. I don’t expect them to be elite in any of them. I don’t even want them to be elite in any of them, because that’s that’s a kind of commitment that I’m not going to decide for them. But I do want them. You know, if they if they’re in college and they go to the beach with some friends and the friends want to play volleyball on the beach, I want them to be able to join in, you know, so so that’s sort of my approach to sport and physical activity is let’s try to be, you know, competent at a lot of activities so that we can play, so that we can have fun, so that we can enjoy.
Peter Bowes: [00:09:48] Yeah, I think that’s a great point that you make. The playing sport, being involved in sport or just physical activity is much more than the game and aspirations to be the best and to be an international star. It is an activity that teaches people so much. And I suppose I can make the correlation with the sport of cricket. I’m from England and you know, it isn’t just about the physicality of of playing the sport. It’s about the respect that it teaches you for the other side and the way that you deal with people and so many lessons that can be extrapolated into general life as well.
Jenny Etnier: [00:10:21] Yeah, well, and I think, you know, adding to those to not just the ones with interacting with others, but also the ones that are more about self reflection of our of ourselves, you know, learning how to how to self reference so that I’m not comparing myself to others, but I’m just trying to improve for my own joy and improvement. Right. Learning how to work hard at something to see that kind of improvement. Right. Learning how to commit myself to a team for a season so that I can, you know, sort of see how good I. Can become and then at the end of that season, I can make a decision, oh, I’m going to continue with the sport or hey, I think I’ll try something new and different because it’s just fun to learn new new skill sets.
Peter Bowes: [00:11:04] And coming back to the point that we made at the beginning in terms of looking at our lifetime and the benefits of physical activity, physical activity that starts young and then continues through our lives. And I` think of people there are highs and the lows and maybe there might be a lot of physical activity at school, but then suddenly you get to college or your first job. And for a lot of people, that’s when it drops off and never really starts again. And I suppose that’s where the the impetus needs to be to get people to maybe focus on the physical side of their lives earlier.
Jenny Etnier: [00:11:34] Yeah, I think so. And to be honest, Peter, I think one of the challenges that we have in this country is that our current youth sport model is exactly that. It’s a youth sport model and many of our club programs and entities exist in a way that seems to be designed to weed people out if they’re not talented enough. And that just makes no sense to me. I know that in Australia there are basketball programs or basketball clubs that people join for a lifetime. So it’s not a youth sport model where, you know, if you’re not good enough, then we’re going to give you the message that you should move on to another sport and get out of basketball. The message is we’re a club for a lifetime. And so a friend of mine says that when he travels back to Australia and he’s in his 30s now, he goes to his club to go play pickup basketball with people who learned how to play at that club. And they they take it so seriously that they have developed a sport called walking basketball. Right. Beautiful. Why do you have to stop playing basketball? Because you can’t run anymore. Right. Right. You can you can figure out a way to adapt the game so that people can play even an incredibly active sport like that from, you know, from five years old up until they’re 80 years old. And that that model, I think, would help us in this country, because I think when you look at community recreation centers, the number of adults who are playing has dropped, you know, dropped precipitously relative to number of young people who play. And so I think those opportunities are missing, you know.
Peter Bowes: [00:13:01] Right, exactly. And the other area that I think is thankfully getting a lot more attention these days is the value of sport, physical activity on our mental health. And it’s something that maybe once upon a time, people just didn’t think about it at all. But it is, as I say, getting much more attention and much more scrutiny and I think much more respect now that if we are physical, it is going to help us in so many other ways.
Jenny Etnier: [00:13:25] Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean, when we think about research literature, the the evidence continues to grow. That tells us that physical activity, movement, exercise benefits, many mental health outcomes from clinical outcomes like depression to things that are that are less clinical, like just a positive mood or a positive affect or positive emotions. The work that I do is focused mostly on cognitive outcomes, and there’s a wealth of evidence and it continues to grow that supports that exercise. Physical activity movement has benefits that we can observe behaviorally when we ask people to do tasks that require them to think to problem solve, to remember. So, yeah, I think that’s I think I think that’s really important. And and I’ll say this to, you know, one of the this covid-19 pandemic has been horrific. It’s had such a horrible impact on, you know, individuals, caused so many deaths, caused so much economic distress. You know, the list goes on. But one of the benefits that has come is that physical activity for a lot of people has risen because they’re home and they have time and they’re not commuting anymore. And they’re looking for things to do because everything’s closed. You probably know that, you know, bike sales went crazy. There was a period of time last summer when you couldn’t hardly buy a bike. And I you know, one of the things that I hope happens is that I hope that that increase in physical activity and families just spending time outdoors together stays high. I hope people are might have been reminded of the value of that and find a way to hang on to that.
Peter Bowes: [00:15:02] It’s interesting you should raise that. I’ve noticed I’ve mentioned a number of times that during the pandemic for me, swimming was my exercise of choice because it was, I think, relatively safe with a booking for a lane in advance. And you stick to that lane and you don’t really interact with any people at all. I noticed at my local public pool far, far more people taking advantage of that facility than ever before. And I think that in part was because gyms were closed and the indoor pools were closed and this is an outdoor pool. Nevertheless, there seems to be a much greater enthusiasm for that sport. And and I agree with you. I hope that continues.
Jenny Etnier: [00:15:36] Yeah. And I think, you know, to to tie this better into your initial question, Peter, I think I think part of the reason that’s happening, too, is because people are recognizing are being reminded of the value of physical activity and exercise for mental health. Right. So we’ve all been stressed out. We’ve all been depressed, you know, we’ve all gone through a lot this last year, and physical activity is a, you know, readily accessible way that we can find to cope with these, you know, psychological challenges that we’re having.
Peter Bowes: [00:16:08] And just digging into your research a little bit, you talked about doing tests with people. I’m interested in how you can perhaps quantify the benefit of physical exercise in terms of someone’s cognitive ability, other experiments that you’ve been involved in and studies that can demonstrate that to us.
Jenny Etnier: [00:16:25] Yeah, I mean, that’s that’s a really fun question, Peter. And really, there’s a there’s a complex answer in sort of an easy answer. So the the easy answer is that there are well-established tasks that we typically administer in the laboratory setting that allow us to measure how people do on different types of thinking tasks. And so, you know, an easy memory test that I could describe to you would be I might read you a list of 15 words and ask you to tell me back as many words as you can remember. And I do that with you five times. So I can look at sort of learning. I look at short term memory. How many do you remember the first time I repeat that same list of words to you? Five times. And so I’m now I’m looking at learning. And then 30 minutes later, I ask you, without telling you the list, to tell me back as many words as you can remember. So that’s like, you know, we’re getting lots of different kinds of measures of memory and that in that relatively simple task.
Peter Bowes: [00:17:20] It’s interesting. Just a little aside, as you explained that test, I’ve done similar things myself as part of studies. And others more casually it’s interesting how as you were running through, it almost strikes fear in my mind, the fact that I might be challenged to do that. And I think that’s quite a common reaction, isn’t it? Especially as we get older, being challenged about our memory and especially short term memory is something that makes us nervous. And I wonder why that is.
Jenny Etnier: [00:17:48] Yeah, well, that’s interesting. I mean, it’s funny that we would start talking about thinking abilities. And then I want to go back to something I was saying about physical abilities, which is just the importance of always self referencing. Right. So it doesn’t matter if I remember more words than you remember, Peter, but what remembers is how do we hang on to our ability to remember as we go forward and age? Right. And so, you know, so when we when we have participants come in, we do actually spend a lot of time talking to them about how we’re not judging your performance today relative to anything, except we want to see how you change between now and six months from now in response to an exercise program. So we’re we’re looking at change, not looking at an absolute measure of performance.
Peter Bowes: [00:18:31] So that’s an interesting point. Essentially, what you’re saying is we’re all very individual. We’re all very individual in terms of our abilities and perhaps is not a good idea, especially as we get older to compare ourselves with with either people have exactly the same age or people who are younger who we might believe are doing better than ourselves and maybe quite rightly. But it’s how we’re doing that’s the most important.
Jenny Etnier: [00:18:52] Yeah, that’s right. Well, and the other piece of that, Peter, is that we when we the current study that I’m doing right now, when people come into our lab, we do almost three and a half hours of testing. So it’s not just memory. It’s also like there’s also visuospatial memory, for instance. So I might show you the picture of a complex looking diagram, like a drawing, ask you to study it and copy it. OK, that’s one measure of ability, right? You’re able to look at something. I copy it. Then I take it away and ask you to draw it from memory. Well, that’s still memory, but it’s a totally different kind of memory. And so people who, you know, have more experience as artists, for instance, might do much better at that task than somebody who is more verbally oriented. And so that word learning list was better for them. But we also do things that are sort of speed of performance. You know, a light’s going to flash. That’s green. Respond with your right hand. If it’s a red light, respond with your left hand. There’s just a huge gamut of tests that we run. And so it is also likely that although you might not be as good as some people on one task, you could be better than a lot of people on another task. Right, because there’s just so many different ways that we use our brain to perform different types of activities.
Peter Bowes: [00:20:05] One area that interests me is the the issue of mental toughness. We can teach. And I think we can develop a physical toughness. And the more exercise we do, the more accustomed to it and the better we become. Mental toughness, I think, just as a concept is is difficult for some people to get. And the idea that we can actually become better.
Jenny Etnier: [00:20:26] Yeah, I mean, mental toughness, when I think of it, I usually think of it as it relates to sport, you know, so we talk about athletes who have mental toughness and these are the athletes that are able to deal with sort of the ups and downs of competition or to perform well when the pressure’s really on. You know, those sorts of things. I would I would relate it to the the final six miles of a marathon or the final leg of a triathlon. It’s not just physical.
Jenny Etnier: [00:20:50] There you go. But you know what’s interesting and and what’s your question is now. Prompted me to think about because we were just thinking we were just talking about sort of advancing age and cognitive abilities, is the notion that I think mental toughness can also be applicable to sort of how we live our daily lives. Right. So if you’re if you’re mentally tough, you probably don’t let sort of small things, you know, throw you off track for the day. If you’re mentally tough, you’ve developed coping strategies that allow you to cope with stressors. You’ve developed time management skills. If you’re aging and you are starting to have some declines in memory, you’ve probably if you’re mentally tough, that means that you’ve developed some strategies to help you continue to perform well, despite the fact that you are starting to have maybe some age related declines. So that’s that’s really interesting to think about when we think about it in the cognitive literature, there’s a theory that’s called the cognitive reserve theory. And what that basically says is that throughout our lives we’re building cognitive reserves, which you can think of as sort of like a healthy brain. Right. So we’re building a healthy brain. And if we make that brain more healthy before we sort of stop being as as engaged, like maybe think of it as before retirement time, then as we stop being as cognitively engaged and maybe stop being as physically engaged, we’re starting from a higher spot. So if we see normal age related decline, it may never become so bad that we see anything behaviorally. So, you know, to me, that’s another kind of mental toughness, which is this notion of and it’s a reason, I think physical activity is so important. Physically active children, I believe, are building a healthier, more well connected brain that is going to serve them well during young adulthood, but will also provide them a higher starting point when they do start to see some some more negative types of declines.
Peter Bowes: [00:22:36] And I think the the world that we live in now, a world full of distractions, full of social media and computers and phones and all of those things that actually make it sometimes quite challenging just to get through the day. I think, as you described it, the way that mental toughness can help us focus, to concentrate, to perhaps ignore a problem now and come back to it later, because we’ve got to finish something else. in the meantime, I think for younger people especially, that’s such a hugely important skill.
Jenny Etnier: [00:23:05] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. You know, and again, I guess I’m sort of trying to tie these things together. But when we think about sport and physical activity, participation for children, part of what that helps them do is to learn how to time manage to learn how to cope with stress, to learn how to cope with people who are frustrating them.
Peter Bowes: [00:23:23] Right.
Jenny Etnier: [00:23:24] So right now, so all of these opportunities that we have, that that can happen through physical activity, participation. And then on top of that, the physical activity itself is having some real benefits. I want to make sure that I tell you, Peter, about you know, you asked me about how we measure cognition. Another way that we look at it is actually by taking measures of brain health. So in the work that I’m doing right now, we’re having people do an MRI, magnetic resonance imaging at the beginning and at the end of participating either in a one year exercise program or they’re in the usual, you know, sort of maintain your normal lifestyle condition for a year. And what we expect to see is we expect that the participants who are exercising for a year are going to show improvements in brain health that are measurable using this kind of neuroimaging and these scans. So, you know, I sort of said there’s like simple ways I could do a wordlist or I could bring you in and I could do this high tech, sophisticated imaging measure that and both of them will, in my experience and from past research, will consistently show that there are benefits associated with the exercise.
Peter Bowes: [00:24:30] Which brings me to one of the points I made at the beginning in terms of those diseases that can be the beginning of the end for so many people. Dementia, to use the umbrella term, Alzheimer’s, to be more specific in terms of one of those diseases, progressive memory loss, and that’s really losing yourself, losing your own identity and ability to recognize those around you, those loved ones in your lives, and a very lonely existence. And there is growing evidence, isn’t there, that that’s physical activity. And the brain benefits that come as a as a side effect of that activity can be so valuable in terms of we know there is no cure at the moment for Alzheimer’s, but we can perhaps delay it.
Jenny Etnier: [00:25:11] Yeah, that’s exactly right. And, you know, that’s a body of literature that’s not as well developed yet, but it’s it is growing pretty quickly. And there are several large clinical trials that are taking place right now across the country that are looking more closely at how physical activity can benefit people who have a risk of Alzheimer’s. Now, there is also a literature that shows that people who already have some level of dementia or clinical cognitive decline, they will still benefit from physical activity, participation, and that’s important. And that’s an important line of work. But there’s a current real interest in looking at physical activity as a way of potentially preventing Alzheimer’s. And what’s so important about that, Peter, is that because Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s or dementia, are typically diagnosed in older age, if you can, you know, prevention could just mean that you delay it to the point where the person doesn’t get it because they die of other natural causes. Right. So, you know, so Alzheimer’s might typically be diagnosed in your early 60s. Well, a physical activity could delay that diagnosis for you until you’re in your early 70s. You know, think about those 10 extra years of quality of life and that shortened time when you would likely be living with such a devastating disease.
Peter Bowes: [00:26:25] I think that’s a very valuable point. And I haven’t really heard it articulated like that, that we could delay some of these conditions beyond the point that we would expect to live anyway. And that is that comes to the point of expanding our healthspan the number of years that we enjoy optimum health and perhaps not focusing so much on lifespan, but living a good, long life as well as possible.
Jenny Etnier: [00:26:48] Yeah, that’s exactly right. And the work that we’re doing right now that I’m really proud of is called the Physical Activity and Alzheimer’s Disease II study or PAAD II And what we’re looking at is we’re recruiting people with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, but they themselves are currently cognitively normal and they’re between 40 to 65 years of age. And so this study that we’re doing is the first study to look at people who are in middle age to say, what if we intervene at this point with an exercise program? There are a number of studies being conducted right now where they’re looking at 65 to 80 year olds, which is which is a good group to look at, too, of course. But by targeting people earlier, you know, our notion is or what we’re thinking is that we may have more room to see improvements and that those improvements then may be long lasting to, again, provide this delay or this prevention into advancing years.
Peter Bowes: [00:27:39] The specifics in the detail of this is fascinating. They are fascinating. But I think there’s a very clear, overriding message from everything you say. I think that is that the sooner we start exercising and the fact that if we continue to exercise throughout our lives, as our lives change, as we go to school, as we get a job, relationships, retirement, the consistency is what’s going to help people.
Jenny Etnier: [00:28:04] Yeah, that’s so well said. I mean, that’s exactly right. And again, you know, that’s why it comes back to sort of, you know, finding things that you enjoy, finding a social group that you enjoy doing it with. I have to mention pickleball again, because I was just when I was with my mom this weekend, I was just noticing that the you know, there were people out there from beginners to experts. Pickleball is a is a lovely game because it’s the skill level that’s required to participate is pretty low. You could get really good at it, but it’s not as demanding of high skill as a sport like tennis, you know, where it takes a lot of coordination to be able to to hit back and forth with a partner. But pickleball sort of this new phenomenon, not new, but it’s relatively new that older adults have really latched on to. It’s played on a smaller court. So you don’t have to be as mobile. The skill set doesn’t have to be as high to be able to hit back and forth with somebody. And it’s just such a great way. What I was noticing really was how these folks were socializing. So they they’re switching courts. They’re switching players. It’s a great way to interact with and meet a lot of different people. And so I think, you know, just for your listeners, if somebody is listening who is not currently physically active, think of something that might be enjoyable to you. And then if you can find a partner or a friend to do it with you, because that will make it all the more enjoyable. It could be biking. It could be walking. It could be hiking. It could be pickleball. It could be swimming, you know, but find something that you do that you think that you would like and then make a commitment to do it with a partner so that both of you get out there and do it on a regular basis.
Peter Bowes: [00:29:34] I think that’s very interesting. I’ve actually been noticing recently as we’re coming out of the pandemic and people are beginning to socialise again, especially when they’re exercising, just observing the joy that seems to bring to people a joy that they didn’t realize 12, 15 months ago. It was almost just part of a routine. But now people are actually realizing the mental benefits of just being with other people.
Jenny Etnier: [00:29:58] Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, and especially at a time that’s as troubling as it is right now, finding little places that can bring you joy, little activities, little small slices of your day where you can let go of your worries, where you can just, you know, hopefully maybe be outside. I love to be outside and just enjoy the spring weather. I’ve been, we’ve been, trying really hard. We have a 16 year old daughter, and so we walk almost every day with her. And I mean, I tell you, Peter, that time is the most valuable time in the world to have to have 45 minutes with my child where we’re just talking and visiting. There is so much joy. I don’t even notice the physical activity. Right. I mean, the physical activity is great, but it’s the part where I’m getting time with my with my family, you know, that is just so valuable
Peter Bowes: [00:30:44] And making it routine. And I suppose my equivalent is my one hour walk-hike every morning with my dog. She insists that I do. There’s no getting out of it. She’s a. Border Collie, she likes exercise and running up and down hillsides, and the same joy applies that it’s obviously good for me. I’m running up and down hillsides. She’s getting some exercise, but there’s a mental benefit as well.
Jenny Etnier: [00:31:05] Yeah, absolutely. And doing it, you know, I’m glad you brought that up, because you’re right, if you have a pet that you walk with that can bring that same kind of joy. It’s a companionship. It’s a shared experience, you know. And, you know, again, I just encourage if you have listeners who aren’t active, just try it. Don’t overdo it. You know, start out with a 10 minute walk. Just enjoy being outside, enjoy walking with somebody. Look for that joy. And what you’ll find is if you make it a regular part of your life, then you will get that feel good effect every time that you do it. And if you don’t do it, even if your border collie is not pawing at your leg, you’ll probably notice that you haven’t done it because you’ll feel like you’ve missed something that day.
Peter Bowes: [00:31:44] Exactly. Are you the kind of person that thinks about your own longevity, thinks about the decades to come and perhaps apply some of the signs that you’ve learned over the decades to your own daily life?
Jenny Etnier: [00:31:56] Yeah, I mean, I’m super committed to being physically active. I am lucky enough. I live about five miles from UNC Greensboro campus. And so when I can I ride my bicycle to work, I try to always get home to be the one that gets to walk with my daughter every day. You know, there are some things that I really love to do. I love to sail. I love to snow ski, I love to water ski. Those aren’t things that I have the time or the finances to do on a regular basis. But boy, I look for an opportunity to do something like that. That just brings sheer joy, because I think I’ve noticed it more about myself in this last in this last year with covid. I’ve recognized that I need social interactions and I’ve been sort of lobbying to my friends and colleagues, like make sure that you find some minutes to have some pure joy every day. It doesn’t have to be long, you know, and it could just be stepping outside on your back porch and looking up at the sky and thinking, wow, what a gorgeous day. You know, it doesn’t have to be much. But I think, you know, for me, as I think about advancing age, that’s one of the things that I hope to stay really committed to, is just trying to really look for a positive look for something that could bring joy still five minutes a day at a minimum to just really feel happy, you know, and to and to cherish all the things that you have good in your life.
Peter Bowes: [00:33:15] I think that’s a really good message in terms of your research. What’s next? Do you have any big projects ahead?
Jenny Etnier: [00:33:22] Well, the one that we’re working on now is a five year study, so we’ll be busy with this. Yeah, we’ll be busy with this for some time. But I’m actually really interested also in looking at the benefits of a single session of exercise. You know, one of the applications is sort of thinking about like I’m I’m surrounded by college students on a regular basis. They might be studying for a test or an exam. And so one of the things that we’re interested in is, OK, if you if you have a test tomorrow and you’re trying to learn a lot of material, when would we time a single session of exercise to give you the biggest benefit in terms of remembering something 24 hours later? And, you know, it’s not it’s not just for the practical application that I’m interested. I’m interested in studying it really systematically and trying to understand. OK, and what dose would that exercise be? Would it be twenty minutes? Would it be thirty minutes? Would it be forty minutes? Would it be low intensity, moderate intensity, high intensity. Does it matter if you’re, you know, moving your arms and legs like you might on like a Nordic Nordic trainer, or can it just be legs like if you’re on a stationary cycle or a treadmill? And then also I’m really interested in thinking about how that might apply to kids because, you know, sadly, physical education is on the decline in most of our schools. And I just think that’s a real tragedy for a lot of reasons. But but I but I also believe that one of the ways that we could lobby to get it back into the schools is to more firmly and clearly demonstrate that there are benefits to the classroom from physical activity participation during the day. So does a single session. You know, if I can get the kids, if I can get the fourth graders to be in physical education in the morning, will that help them throughout the day in terms of their classroom behaviour, their ability to pay attention, their ability to learn, their ability to problem solve? And so I’m really interested in, you know, trying to find a way to systematically approach that question so that we can develop a really strong body of evidence to be more compelling to the policymakers and the decision makers in the schools.
Peter Bowes: [00:35:25] I think that’s really fascinating. And just as you were mentioning all of that, it just reminded me of a study I must follow up on whether it’s finished and what the results are. A study that was looking at the idea of having walking desks in a classroom, people standing up and being physical as they are learning, and the correlation between the the cognitive benefits and the physical benefits. And I know there’s a lot of research going on in that area, which is quite fascinating to me.
Jenny Etnier: [00:35:52] Yeah. Absolutely, I mean, I think that’s that’s interesting, not just for children, but also for working adults. Right. And especially folks who have been working from home lately. Right. Exactly. In my in my office at work, I have a sit to stand convertor so I can stand up and sit down and stand up and sit down. But when I’m working at home, I don’t have that. So it’s you know, I notice and I think about it a lot. And interestingly, I think this is interesting, too. When I first got the sit to stand convertor, I couldn’t think very well when I was standing. I found myself sitting down whenever I had to do anything where I felt like I needed to be able to think better. But I’ve learned how to do it. And I don’t know if that’s a physical learning or an attentional learning. Right. But now I can essentially dual task and stand up and do as as cognitively demanding a task as I want to. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting or standing. So I think that tells me that there’s a benefit. Right. That tells me there’s a benefit. And so I think that’s neat about the schools, too. Right. You know, The peddlers that you might have under your desk or standing desks where you’re standing all the time. I, I do think it’s important that we think about posture and we think about, you know, not staying in the same position for too long. So in those classrooms where they have standing desks, I think they do a good job of moving kids, sort of rotating them so that they’re sitting and standing and maybe they’re sitting on an exercise ball, you know, maybe they’re sitting at a place with a pedlar. But, yeah, you’re right. The emerging evidence suggests that those have really beneficial effects.
Peter Bowes: [00:37:17] Jenny, this has been a really good conversation. I’ve enjoyed it. I’m going to follow your research. And thank you very much indeed.
Jenny Etnier: [00:37:23] Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s a real joy to get to talk about my work and to answer such really interesting questions. Thank you.
Peter Bowes: [00:37:29] Yeah, huge pleasure for me, too. And for anyone that would like to dig a little deeper, to learn more about your research, I will put some links to your work, to your books in the show notes for this episode. You’ll find them at the Live Long and Master aging website, LLAMApodcast.com LLAMA podcast.com In social media you’ll find us @LLAMApodcast. You can contact me @PeterBowes. The LLAMA podcast is at Healthspan Media Production. We’re available on all of the major podcasting platforms, including Apple Podcasts, free of charge to everyone. You can also rate and review us there. Wherever you find us, take care. And thanks so much for listening.