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“Learning and exercise together seem to be a good combination. As people reach middle age, and the brain begins to degenerate, exercise is more, not less, important, and one of the few ways to offset this process… If there’s a panacea in medicine, it’s walking.” Norman Doidge, MD, The Brain’s Way of Healing (Viking 2015)

Physical and Mental Exercise Combine to Keep the Brain Fit and Healthy

Reduce Alzheimer’s by 60%

Not long ago scientists looked on the brain as an extremely complex computer that inevitably degenerates with time and use. Use it and lose it was the prevailing view. Attempts to preserve the brain through mental activity and exercise were, at best, looked on as a waste of time. That’s no longer the case, Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist who teaches at the University of Toronto and Columbia University, tells readers in his new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing.

The new and more accurate rule for the brain is now “Use it or lose it.”

Researchers have found that mental and physical activity trigger the growth of new brain cells and the release of a kind of brain fertilizer that helps the brain form new connections—and stay healthy. Many believe that this ability springs from our evolutionary beginnings when we were forced to explore and adjust to new territories in the search for food and shelter. The mental and physical exertion involved forced the brain to grow and adapt in order to survive. In other words, the brain evolved to learn. It’s more complicated, of course, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Let’s look at two blockbuster studies highlighted by Dr. Doidge and another breakthrough study released since the publication of his enlightening and energizing book.

“Yes” to Physical Exercise

Vigorous exercise should be accorded a “central place” as a preventive or treatment of Parkinson’s disease (PD), dementia, and brain aging, Mayo Clinic neurologist J. Eric Ahlskog and colleagues concluded after an extensive literature review (animals and humans). This finding is momentous for PD, where medicine has been widely considered to be the only palliative, and for Alzheimer’s disease, where there are no effective medications.

Ahlskog’s review found that vigorous exercise—mostly aerobic--sufficient to increase heart rate and the need for oxygen may preserve brain function and slow dementing illness. Typical doses in most studies were 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise a week. Sedentary individuals were urged to begin slowly and gradually increase as their fitness improves.

Ahlskog et al wrote: “PD risk in humans is significantly reduced by midlife exercise, documented in large prospective studies. Among seniors in general, exercise or physical fitness has not only been associated with better cognitive scores, but midlife exercise significantly reduces the later risk of both dementia and mild cognitive impairment.” Even those with full blown dementia made some modest improvement with exercise.

These findings were published July 19, 2011, in the journal Neurology and in Mayo Clinic Proceedings 86, no. 9 (2011).

Dementia Reduced by 60 Percent

The newly discovered “neuroplasticity” of the brain opens the door to treatments once thought naïve or even counterproductive.

Cochrane Institute researchers introduced an eye-opening study of lifestyle and health with lines from a 1942 poem by their progenitor Al Cochrane:

And now let doctors quit the centre stage

To usher in the prophylactic age

Dr. Peter Elwood and a team from the Cochrane Institute of Primary Care and Public Health, Cardiff University, United Kingdom, uncovered the amazing preventative power of exercise and other healthy living practices.

For 30 years, they followed 2,235 middle aged men, observing the impact of five activities on the development of dementia or cognitive decline, along with heart disease, cancer, and early death. The men were meticulously examined at regular intervals. If they showed any signs of cognitive decline or dementia, they were sent for detailed clinical assessment. This was important because it caught low levels of dementia early enough to overcome the problem of reverse causality, i.e. whether the dementia or cognitive decline preceded the “bad behaviors.”  

Men who consistently did a few things reduced their risk of cognitive decline and dementia an amazing 60 percent. The activities were eating a healthy diet, maintaining a normal weight, limiting alcohol, not smoking—and exercising regularly.

Exerciser devotees will be encouraged—indeed thrilled—to learn that the activities with the biggest impact on risk were walking at least 2 miles a day, biking 10 miles a day, or engaging regularly in some other vigorous physical exercise.

“Imagine if there were a drug that could reduce the risk of dementia by 60%,” Dr. Doidge wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “It would be the most talked-about drug in history.”

“But this astonishing finding has been fairly quietly received,” he lamented. Most of the energy is focused on coming up with a drug to cure Alzheimer’s disease or a genetic breakthrough.

Many people assume that Alzheimer’s disease is “all in your genes.” Not so according to Doidge and others. “For the majority of people, how they live matters,” Doidge wrote.

“Quite small increases in the uptake of healthy behaviours could considerably reduce the population burden of vascular disease, dementia and death,” Elwood et al concluded.

You can read the entire Elwood study in the December 2013 PLoS ONE.


Photo by Laszlo Bencze

Experts predict that dementia will increase fourfold by 2050.
 We can prove them wrong by walking in stimulating environments and evolving in our thoughts and actions.


Physical-Mental Combination Provides Added Benefit

Greek philosophers were right about a sound mind in a sound body, a new study suggests. Training both mind and body appears to be the best way to keep an older brain working well. The combined effect appears to be greater than the sum of their separate effects. And that’s not all. The forms of training prescribed in the study may not have been optimal—indicating that even better results are quite possible.

Senior researcher Ralph Martins and colleagues at the Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Care in Perth, Australia, divided 224 older adults into four groups. One group walked at a comfortable pace for an hour three days a week and did 40 minutes of resistance training twice a week, both for 16 weeks. Another group did an hour of computerized cognitive training five days a week, also for 16 weeks. A third group did both regimens. The fourth was a control group which made no changes in their lifestyle.

Only the combination group significantly improved verbal memory, which helps people remember words and language. While no other form of cognitive improvement resulted, the combination group was found to have a higher glucose metabolism in an important part of the brain, which was positively associated with the improved verbal memory.

Keep in mind that glucose, blood sugar, is the preferred fuel for the brain and central nervous system.

“The results identify cerebral glucose metabolism as a result of these activities, beyond the traditional benefits of enhanced blood circulation as observed for both physical and mental activities,” the researchers wrote. “Although [the] data…must be interpreted with caution, [these] findings provide information that combined lifestyle activities may be altering neuronal activity,” they added cautiously.

“The findings do indicate that the type of activities trialed here provide greater cognitive benefits than routine lifestyle activities in the healthy elderly,” Martins et al concluded.

Importantly, the researchers also suggested that higher intensity physical exercise may have produced a more global cognitive benefit. They note that “brisk walking” in a previous study “generated positive outcomes.” Participants in the Martins trial, of course, walked at a comfortable pace.

Defies Logic

Comments by Dr. Martins and Dr. David Merrill, a geriatric psychiatrist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, appearing in Medscape (January 20, 2015), bolster the impact of the Shah-Martins study. (Shah was the lead researcher.)

Both Martins and Merrill agreed that physical exercise had the most profound effect. Merrill said, “Physical exercise sets the stage for the brain to be responsive to new information. You’re all ready to build new synapses, new connections.”

Both doctors favor real-life challenges over computerized brain exercise.

Like the Martin team, Dr. Merrill advocated building up to more strenuous exercise than the people did in the study.

In other words, vigorous exercise combined with real-life challenges may have had a wider and greater effect.

Merrill ends with words for seniors (and everybody else) to live by—on retirement and on exercise:

“Full retirement doesn’t make sense for graceful aging,” he says. “People should keep working not only to maintain their self-identity but to challenge their brain.”

“There’s lots of data that shows that being physically active is good for the brain. It’s almost so intuitive that it defies logic that so few people are active physically.”

The Shah-Martins study was reported December 2, 2014 in Translational Psychiatry.

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It’s hard to top Dr. Merrill. I won’t try except to urge you to harken back to our evolutionary beginnings and continually challenge yourself physically and mentally.

For inspiration and guidance read Dr. Doidge’s books The Brain That Changes Itself (Penguin 2007) and The Brain’s Way of Healing (Viking 2015), along with my books and DVDs on balanced training (strength and aerobic), motivation, and nutrition: http://www.cbass.com/PRODUCTS.HTM

*  *  *

For the effect of strength training on brain functions see:





Posted August 1, 2015

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