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Posted on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 : 9:16 a.m.

Stretching the brain's waves to keep it fit

By Robert Faber

Editor's note: Robert Faber writes occasional columns for about aging, politics and other issues.

It is a well-known fact that physical exercise is one of the more valuable, more stimulating activities to be inflicted upon Man. Midday naps are good and eating between meals isn’t bad, but they cannot hold a candle — or a calorie — to lifting and stretching in order to build a body trim and a stomach flat. There is nothing quite like a physique shaped by the continuing flow of exercise weights lifted and body-weight dropped.

But that does little for the waves of the brain. The boredom of the treadmill can stimulate the heart and dumbing down with dumbbells can beef up the biceps, but that leaves the resident neurons of the brain just lying around with nothing to do beyond listening to music and watching television and growing ever fatter and more lax.

Exercising the brain involves less obvious manipulation of that organ than does a workout on the more visible parts of the body, but maneuvering the mind by weighing words, revising thoughts, and occasionally reversing direction does have a highly beneficial impact on its efficiency and well-being.

Challenging old ideas and considering new directions and redesigning old thoughts to reflect new approaches and analyses stimulates the brain in ways that protects and expands its function to the benefit of its host body. Such mental activity invigorates the brain cells in much the same way that physical exercise trims the body fat.


Reading can be among the most satisfying, stimulating mental activities available to all seniors, regardless of background or intellectual skills or interests.

Yuri Arcurs |

Unlike physical exercise, active thought causes no sweat and need not provoke the pain of strain, but it can significantly change the way the eye sees and the mind examines. In short, in order to stay strong and healthy in attitude and outlook, the mind needs exercise in much the same way as do the muscles of the body. And that is one of the seriously overlooked requirements of seniorhood.

Surviving the earlier stages of life and transitioning into the next had required some degree of planning and perseverance, but now — comfortable in what Aesop describes as the seventh and last stage of life — we need no longer struggle. Simply moving on comes naturally and easily.

We’ve grown into that wonderful period of self-indulgence, that plateau of life in which we need not concentrate on being productive, responsible adults. We need answer to nobody but ourselves.

Which sounds very inviting, but answering to nobody but ourselves still requires that we answer. Just closing our eyes and shutting down, ignoring the state of the world, or the problems of our society, or the needs of our fellows will not do it. For very personal, selfish reasons — even aside from moral obligations — we must participate, in the affairs of our community or in our much smaller artificial world of hobbies and personal pastimes. Our body needs its mind, and our mind needs its activities.

The largest field of opportunities for mental expansion lies in literature’s broad range of challenges. Reading can be among the most satisfying, stimulating mental activities available to all seniors, regardless of background or intellectual skills or interests. Whether the subject is the founding of our nation or the obscurities of ancient history seen through the eyes of Thucydides, or finding favor in the fables of Aesop or tingling with the titillation of paperback novels, the stimulation of reading and reacting and remembering is as beneficial as it is pleasurable.

Or join with a friend in similar need of mental stimulation and learn to play chess or bridge or other such competitive intellectual games. Whether you win or lose each subsequent contest, you will have gained immensely from the pleasure and the competition. And even for ancient octogenarians (pardon the personal), learning such new skills as playing a musical instrument, or managing such productive hobbies as woodworking, or painting, or sewing and knitting can provide valuable and fulfilling alternatives to the dangers of quiet self-absorption.

Several years ago, visiting the home of a young relative, I stumbled upon a group of senior men (guests of his father) who had gathered in his house for their monthly meeting. They had all retired after many years of routines that had occupied all their time and thought and energy. With little to do, little left to challenge their mind or occupy their time and feeling superfluous, they joined a cooking class. A cake baking class.

When I walked in they were showing off the current monthly results of their newly acquired expertise — a collection of the most beautiful, ornate and delicious cakes I have yet come across.

But the quality of the product is not the point — it was the immense pleasure and satisfaction that accompanied their accomplishment that was the victory.

In short, what and how well the challenges are met are of little consequence. It is the stimulation of challenge and growth — possibly enriched by some small degree of success — that is the golden ring on the merry-go-round of age that rewards us all.

Bob Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at



Tue, Oct 18, 2011 : 4:40 p.m.

At age 66, I couldn't agree more with Robert Faber's article. About 6 years ago, I fell hard on concrete and broke my left radius (arm bone). I'd never broken a bone before - despite being very athletic and very daring in my youth. I was concerned that my bones might be getting thinner or brittle. The orthopedic surgeon was looking at the x-rays when I asked. He turned to me and asked, "Were you a weight lifter?" I told him yes, back in my high school days, I was a weight lifter and shot putter. He said, "Then your shoulder must be like Super Man's because your arm bones are well above average in strength and density." The break healed on schedule and my final mobility test showed I'd regained 100%. The surgeon watched my testing and said to me: "Nobody with a break like that regains 100%." But I had. :-) Brain exercise: also starts in youth, the problem is that "life's patterns" cause us to adopt a "that's enough" attitude and we stop pushing our brains to do new things and better things. I'm lucky: I've always loved learning new things. Now, I'm doing all my own cooking and love baking bread and making soups and doing all those things in the kitchen. But I also read prodigiously, write every day and even watch movies just so I can analyze the plot, the writer's strategies and the movie-maker's techniques. I'm a member of the National Assoc. of Photoshop Professionals, an avid photographer and home movie-maker (thanks to great digital cameras and a powerful computer). I just took on a new part-time job: less physical but it involves "using my head" a lot more. NEVER give up on BEING ALIVE until God or the fates call for the end.


Tue, Oct 18, 2011 : 3:04 p.m.

THE MIND - BODY DICHOTOMY : Thanks for your excellent post and for your desire to move away from the past and understand things using new information and applying a reasoning process. We have to get away from this notion of mind-body dichotomy. This idea belongs to Rene Descartes, 17th century French mathematician and Father of Modern Philosophy. To make a distinction between a physical substance called body, and a thinking substance called mind does not help the proper understanding of the multicellular human organism. I would prefer Aristotle's view that states corporeal substances are composite of two principles; form, and matter. The human organism has a form and matter called protoplasm which is found in all the cells. Some cells perform specialized functions and yet the matter is the same. Physical activity involves mental activity as muscular activity is neuro-muscular action. It is the memory function which needs special attention. Reciting from memory, or writing from memory, or playing games that involve the use of memory function are very useful to prevent impairment of cognitive functions. Changing position is the most important physical activity that helps circulation and while reading it is better to change position by standing up and stretching to avoid being in the sitting posture for a long period of time.


Thu, Oct 20, 2011 : 3:23 p.m.

BhavanaJagat, all of your points are well taken by me. My comments were directed to all, not just the elderly but, as you note, the article was more directed toward the elderly (though I think the suggestions contained within apply to all ages), so I acknowledge that I should have made it clear that my comments were not limited to the elderly. It is true that the elderly often (though not always) do have many structural and functional compromises, as you point out. Having said that, many of the structural and functional infirmities that befall the elderly can be avoided or remedied, particularly if remedial measures are undertaken at the earlier stages of dysfunction. Thanks!


Thu, Oct 20, 2011 : 1:42 a.m.

Thanks for your comment. I would not like to contradict your statement in any manner. We are discussing the issue of posture, position, and gait in aging population where certain amount of natural deterioration in structure and function is expected. People with no heart ailment or blood pressure problems experience syncopal attacks or fainting spells suddenly while they try to stand up from a sitting posture or lying position. The venous tone declines, muscle mass decreases, and the return of the blood to heart from lower extremities is often compromised. Even healthy male adults who remain seated for a long time, such as during a long plane journey must find an opportunity to stand up and take a short walk. In women, this problem could be a little more serious. The photo image of an elderly person reading a book was the reason for my suggestion. I would give preference to mental activities that involve recalling information from memory and not that of reading books for an extensive period of time.


Wed, Oct 19, 2011 : 10:16 p.m.

Unless there is some cardiovascular, neuromuscular or neurovascular compromise, getting blood to the brain should not be an issue. One could always do occasional toe raises if one had the sensation that blood was pooling in the lower extremities. I don't advocate standing perfectly still; shifting one's weight, toe raises, lifting up the thighs at the waist - all of these would be useful and hemodynamically positive though, in healthy people, generally not needed. The strains of which you write also would normally be a problem only if one's posture was misaligned or one's body use was improper. If strains should occur, you should have someone check and correct your alignment and/or body use. The posture ascribed to soldiers is not healthy as it puts the spine out of natural alignment, creating strains in muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, etc. Soldiers in parades are asked to stand too rigidly in improper posture for too long a period of time. This is nothing like I am talking about when doing activities that can be done standing, as one's posture should be more natural, you can shift your weight and move whenever and however you might want, and you have full control over the duration of the standing activity. The usual alternative to the standing position (i.e., sitting) has been shown to increase one's risk of diabetes and premature cardiovascular disease, independent of how active a person is during the day otherwise.


Wed, Oct 19, 2011 : 3:57 p.m.

VERTICAL GAIT : It has advantages and has some disadvantages. It imposes strain on the spine, and the muscles that support the body weight. The weight of supporting head imposes strain upon neck muscles. The horizontal posture is the most relaxing posture as the gravitational pull is evenly spread. Soldiers standing erect during parade may faint occasionally due to neurovascular imbalance. Blood has to be pumped up to head while blood is pooling up in the leg muscles while the person is standing on his feet.


Wed, Oct 19, 2011 : 12:14 a.m.

This is not commonly considered, but standing while doing many activities normally doing in the sitting or lying position seems to be much healthier in all respects. I spend at least a couple of hours on the computer daily and I estimate that 95% of that time is spent in the standing position. When I have the opportunity in the near future to begin reading more, I likely will do a good part of that standing as well.