Exercise and the Brain

We are honoured to present an ongoing series of interviews with Professor Nola Dippenaar who is renowned as a local and international speaker on healthcare topics. Her latest talk on Brain Health at the Brooklyn Theatre (where she speaks regularly) in Pretoria was an outstanding example of giving people what they need to hear. An audience mixed with medical alumni and lay people is not the easiest to address, but Professor Dippenaar has this down to a fine art. It is understandable that so many pay an almost obsequious attention to these talks. They are never above, or below, the intellect. They hit the target square on, and so provide the most meaningful discourse. It is our pleasure, then, to get to grips with some of the topics in Professor Dippenaar’s arsenal.

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We meet at the Professor’s Health Insight office, a tranquil setting in the heart of Pretoria East’s bustling boisterousness. It is a welcome respite from the heat, from the noise, and the opportunity to learn without distraction.

In her series on Brain Health, we decide that this issue’s topic will centre around probably the simplest yet most effective panacea for brain health, and, therefore, the person’s general wellbeing – exercise!

“My mission is to provide insight and understanding into health issues because there is so much misinformation out there,” she says. “Especially with the ubiquitous spread of Internet-related media, everyone is suddenly a medical expert. This could be very detrimental to your health! Getting to the truth, and the heart of the matter, requires expert knowledge to determine the accuracy of all the debris out there.”

There could be no misunderstanding of what she suggests is the start to good health.

The Golden Rule for Seniors

“The golden rule for seniors and the elderly is to do as much physical activity as possible every day. It’s important for brain health and overall health.

“You don’t have to walk far when you start. Just do whatever you can to get your heart pumping, and that may mean a couple of strolls up and down the residents’ corridors. As you start feeling more confident, you can do some walks around the retirement centre, or your home. You should do this every morning and evening.

“I can’t stress the importance of this activity strongly enough. If you must take your walking stick or Zimmer frame along, that’s just fine. The point is to keep moving!”

She says it’s much like going to buy a car and asking the salesperson if the car would move if you pressed the accelerator.

“You have to press your accelerator, which is your brain, and become accustomed to the mindset that exercise is absolutely essential.”

Professor Dippenaar says that we should all stop to consider what the body was designed for.

“There has been a lot written about this, but it doesn’t seem to have had much impression! I would suggest that people do take note. It could mean their very survival. It’s as dramatic as that.

Look back when life was simpler

“We have to look back when life was much simpler. Men and women were hunters and gatherers. They ate plants, berries and roots and occasionally an animal if they were lucky enough to catch it! There were two factors that concerned them – to find food and to be safe. From all the books written about this, it is estimated that in order to fulfil those factors, people walked 10-16km a day!

“That’s what our bodies were designed for. Most people, though, even with their Fitbit watches that measure these things, don’t even make it to 1km a day.”

She says that it’s obvious from the time that babies start to walk, there’s just no stopping them! They will walk, run, fall, repeat!

Professor Dippenaar gives the analogy of buying a Lamborghini or Ferrari, and then parking it in the garage, only to want to start using it 50 years on.

“You’re not doing your body any favours when you walk every day. You’re merely using it for what it was designed for! I’d liked to say that it’s more important than food, yet we would never dream of not eating! We will always find time to eat, no matter how busy we are. That’s always the first blimp to appear on the radar screen.

“You say ‘Oh, in 2020 I’ll start exercising. I promise.’ Why not tomorrow? The delayed exercise syndrome is the most common in the world. Yet, once people begin exercising, they wonder how they ever managed without it.

“If I was talking to an audience of older people in a theatre, I would explain the need for exercise as clearly as possible and try and motivate them as much as possible for the necessity of movement. I would impress that it’s vital to keep moving, whatever the level of capability is. Obviously, some will be able to do more than others, and that’s fine. It’s important that those that are struggling to keep up are encouraged to just do as much as they feel is possible.”

The importance of regular exercise, she stresses, is what counts. Once the effects of this activity begin to make an impact, there will be no need for constant motivation. People will be raring to go. At least, that’s her experience.

It is a very powerful de-stressor

“It is a very powerful de-stressor, and best of all is that it’s totally free. No extra medicine needed! Many retirement centres provide exercise classes and you should participate in those as well. Everything is designed to lift the heart rate. Many of these classes are with people seated in chairs, and that’s fine, if that’s the level you’re at. Exercise is exercise!

“If you can walk, though, then that’s what you must do, and the more you walk the fitter you will become. Apart from being a de-stressor, it’s also an activity that’s benefitting the entire body and particularly the brain!

“The human brain weighs about 1,3kg but it uses 20 percent of the body’s oxygen. The only time that you really increase the flow of blood to the brain, is when you’re being physically active. So, if you really want to improve the oxygen supply to the brain, you better start walking! Regular, every day walking is the answer.”

The medical aids are trying to get people walking for their health, but if they said you had to walk 10-16km a day, no-one would even think about it.

We both laugh at this.

“They have taken a soft approach by saying if you do 10 000 steps a day, there will be a reward in the offering. This could be a movie pass, or something, just an incentive to get you moving.

“The retirement centres should have a programme in place where, say, a nurse would take eager-beavers out for a walk at 7.30am and again after the late afternoon meal. People can walk together, and it’s ideal for socialising and meeting people with a shared goal and getting fit together.

“I’ve always found that if there are two or more people also willing to walk, they will feel better about the activity and enjoy it more, especially if they are just starting out. The centre could plan a route with a short circuit, a medium circuit and a long circuit. People can decide which circuit would suit them and be proud of their efforts once they progress.”

Professor Dippenaar says that exercising is also one way of empowering people in this setting.

“If we can take away some of the vulnerability and loneliness that is very commonplace with the elderly, then that’s a fantastic bonus.”

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