Featured Blogs
  • Cognitive Benefits of Physical Activity for Older Adults

    by Caitlin Kinser | May 20, 2022

    Cognitive Benefits of Physical Activity for Older AdultsPhysical activity improves both physical and cognitive health, especially among older adults. Cognitive health encompasses many aspects of our daily functioning: memory, maintaining attention and concentration, dealing with distractions, solving problem and making decisions. Those cognitive functions tend to decline as we age, and physical activity can greatly prevent cognitive decline. For example, a meta-analysis has shown that adults participating in higher levels of physical activity had a 38% lower risk of cognitive decline in follow-up years. For low to moderate activity, there is still a 35% lower risk of cognitive decline. So, the message is simple: any physical activity can help. No need to lift heavy weight at the gym or run marathons to reap the benefits. For those looking at a more specific program that could be done at the gym, an example could be five to seven movements at 60-80% 1 RM, two sets, with two minutes rest, twice a week. For older adults with more limited mobility, some exercise with resistance band, or/and with a chair can be helpful. Aging is also associated with arthritis, so doing exercises that require fine motor skills with fingers can help maintain finger joint function. This is especially important for being able to grab and manipulate small objects such as silverware or a pen or opening a water bottle. Ideally, an exercise program for older adults should include some aspects of aerobic and resistance training, along with balance exercises to prevent falls.

    Studies with older adults have shown that physical activity specifically impacts executive functions. Executive function refers to processes that control, direct and coordinate other lower cognitive processes and goal-directed behaviors associated with the frontal lobe. Examples of tasks requiring executive function include scheduling, inhibition, planning, working memory, problem solving and task switching. Those skills are critical for the activities of daily living, and this is why physical activity can help prevent cognitive decline and promote healthy aging.

    How does exercise impact cognitive functioning? Mechanisms are still being investigated but the main ones with empirical support include improvements in cardiovascular function and the associated influence on the cerebrovascular system, reduction in stress and anxiety, reduced inflammation and improved insulin sensitivity. When focusing on the brain, molecular and cellular mechanisms are the two main explanations for improved cognitive functions. Regarding molecular mechanisms, being physically active increases brain-derived neurotrophic factors, which regulates synaptic plasticity and memory. Exercise also alleviates growth factors such as insulin-like growth factor and vascular endothelial growth factor, important for vascular health. Exercise also improves cognitive functioning via cellular mechanisms. Specifically, exercise promotes neurogenesis (development of new neurons) and synaptogenesis (formation of synapses). Those molecular and cellular benefits are also associated with neuroelectric changes. Indeed, it appears that increased fitness and greater participation in long-term exercise is associated with a larger P300 amplitude (more attention resources) and shorter P300 latency (faster information processing), but more studies are needed to provide more definitive recommendations.

    What activities should be considered for older adults? Any activity that is safe and enjoyable. This could include walking, gardening, dancing, swimming, biking or any other activity that gets them moving. The best activity is the one that is enjoyable, and often doing it with other people helps to make it more fun. Being active with others also helps with cognitive benefits and mood as social interactions are important for healthy aging. If you cannot find anyone to exercise with, walking your dog could also be a good way to make yourself accountable and integrate physical activity in your daily routine.

    Jean-Charles Lebeau, Ph.D., CMPC, is an assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology in the School of Kinesiology at Ball State University. He is also a Certified Mental Performance Consultant® through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

  • Effects of Physical Activity on Mental Health in Vulnerable Populations

    by Caitlin Kinser | May 16, 2022

    woman in head scarf smilingIf you or someone you know is managing a mental illness, then you or they are not alone. Many Americans struggle with mental illnesses. Almost one in five adults live with a mental illness (52.9 million in 2020). Mental illness is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that can vary in impact from mild to severe. Mental health problems are equal opportunity, regardless of your race, gender, age, income or education, mental illness can affect all of us. Exercise has been shown to positively affect mood, quality of life and overall mental health. This can include walking around the block, giving your body a good stretch or even doing some pushups or squats. The intensity can vary as well—just the act of movement can have profound effects!

    Certain vulnerable populations are at even greater risk for having poor mental health or mental illness. Pregnant women, cancer patients, inmates and substance users are groups that are likely to have mental health struggles and lower levels of physical activity. These groups do not often receive the attention that is warranted.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges that 10-16% of pregnant women and 13-20% of postpartum women experience mental disorders. Pregnant women can suffer from mental health issues including depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. When these illnesses are severe enough, they can lead to negative pregnancy outcomes. These can be a result of low social support, a history of depression or anxiety, life stress, unintended pregnancy or intimate partner violence. Pregnant women can improve their mental health by adding exercise into their routine. Exercise has also been shown to lower rates of antenatal depression and anxiety.

    The number of cancer patients dealing with psychological disorders is high, affecting approximately 33%. Rates of major depressive disorder in cancer patients are thought to be up to three times as high as the general population. Cancer patients can experience depressive symptoms because of their diagnosis. Life may look bleak, or patients might be overcome with despair following this traumatic news. For these reasons it is even more important that their mental health needs are met. Just participating in leisure time physical activity has been shown to increase well-being, mental health and overall outlook on life.

    Prison inmates may also be more prone to dealing with mental health struggles because of their incarceration. High rates of mental illness are seen in this population, with a study showing that 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners reporting mental health concerns. A survey showed that structured exercise within the prison population reduced rates of depression, anxiety and hostility scores.

    Unfortunately, substance use and mental disorders can go hand and hand. Numerous national surveys found that about half of those who abuse substances will also experience a mental illness during their lives, and vice versa. There is a high co-occurrence of substance use and anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. This overlap is concerning. Research suggests that physical activity programs and even mind-body programs can positively effect depression, anxiety, stress and even cravings.

    If you don’t know where to start, getting the heart pumping doing some aerobic activity and resistance exercise you enjoy has been shown to be associated with lowered depression and anxiety levels. Jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, lifting weights, playing sports and dancing can all have an impact on improving your mental health. ACSM, the CDC and WHO recommend cancer patients, pregnant women and general population adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. Aerobic activity has also been shown to reduce drug cravings, depression, anxiety and increase drug withdrawal rate among drug users. Lastly, prison inmates should be getting one hour of physical activity a day, five days per week. Most importantly, this should include outdoor recreation and sport activities, which can help to eliminate feelings of hopelessness and increase social opportunities which can lead to better mental health. Mind-body exercises such as yoga and meditation can have profound effects on our mental states. In addition to the benefits of the yoga movements that include creating a more positive mood and increasing endorphins, yoga can strengthen connections in your brain that allow you to have better memory, attention, awareness, thought and language. Yoga can also be an effective long-term remedy for depression and anxiety.

    During Mental Health Awareness Month, we should take some time to remember how life stressors can affect us all differently. Take some time for self-care and to care for and support one another. Keep in mind those who are in challenging situations and how their mental health can be affected. Even though someone may not feel comfortable talking about their mental health, doesn’t mean they aren’t facing challenges.

    Access Mental Health Resources

    Jordan TaylorJordan Taylor, MPH, is a graduate from The University of Memphis with his bachelor’s in psychology and master’s in public health. He is a member of the ACSM Leadership & Diversity Training Program and currently works as a fitness coach in Memphis, TN. Jordan has a passion for helping people achieve their best selves physically, emotionally, and mentally through health and fitness.

  • Mental Health and Heart Rate Variability

    by Caitlin Kinser | May 13, 2022

    mental health and heart rate variabilityTwo hot topics for athletes (and anyone interested in feeling/performing their best) right now are mental health and heart rate variability. For mental health awareness month, let’s talk about both!

    Mental performance and mental health exist on a continuum, and there’s frequent discussion in the world of sport psychology about distinctions, but one’s performance can impact their mental health and vice versa. An athlete may be so consumed with winning that impacts of performance anxiety bleed from hindered performance, and into general well-being. A soldier with PTSD might be unable to perform when it matters most. And a business executive may feel that they have to be “on” so frequently, that stress leads to obsessiveness, control issues, irritability and even depression. Examples of mental performance and mental health cross-over are limitless. By some estimates, one in five adults face mental health concerns in their lifetime and by other estimates, one in five adults face mental health concerns in a given year.  In June of 2020 (during the pandemic), one estimate indicated that 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use, and by some recent accounts there is now a mental health crisis among teens. When mental health and/or performance suffers, heart rate variability (HRV) tends to be low; alternatively, higher HRV tends to be associated with reduced symptomology of depression or anxiety, improved cardiac functioning and better situational awareness.

    People often say things like, “heart rate variability? Mine is pretty good, usually under 60 or 70.”  However, they’re referring to heart rate (the number of times our heart beats in a minute). Heart rate variability (HRV) is a little bit different. With HRV, we are looking at how much the heart rate accelerates and decelerates, and whether or not fluctuations are rhythmic. While lower heart rate is often a good sign of cardiovascular functioning, higher HRV is a good indicator of both physical and psychological health. There are several ways to measure HRV; sport physiologists often use one metric to optimize training load (i.e., should I train hard today, go light or take a day off?). Psychophysiologists or performance psychologists may tap into other metrics to optimize stress management.

    Through paced breathing and through stress management techniques, we can elevate heart rate variability. It’s like doing a workout to strengthen the vagal nerve, impacting nervous system functioning, to allow the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) to work in harmony with the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). It also strengthens the baroreflex (responsible for blood pressure stabilization). In training HRV, the ups and downs in heart rate appear like a sine wave, whereby a rise in heart rate coincides with inhaling and decreases align with exhales; this is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

    respiratory sinus arrythmiaAs you can see in the illustration, achieving respiratory sinus arrythmia (RSA) boosts HRV (the difference between max and min heart during rest or recovery). We can take this a step further, achieving RSA and maximizing the difference between peaks and valleys, by systematically determining one’s resonance frequency (RF).  Simply put, this is the pace of breathing where HRV is maximized (according to max-min plus other HRV metrics).  You can determine this with a biofeedback practitioner, and/or increasingly there are apps that will do this for you if you have a heart rate monitor. It can be worth it to go the distance to determine your exact RF rate, but most people tend to have an optimal breath rate in the ballpark of six breaths per minute, meaning: four second inhale and six second exhale. There are simple breath pacer apps that will help you pace your breath exactly, so you can utilize this science-based approach rather than jumping on the latest breathing fad. And if you want to take your breathing regimen to the next level, allow it to be mindful paced breathing.

    The next time you feel pulled to be supportive in response to another’s mental health or mental performance concerns by saying something like, “relax, take a deep breath,” consider the following tweak to your thinking/approach:

    Mental health and mental performance concerns are common, especially now. Always err on the side of caution. Normalize struggles and validate feelings rather than jumping straight into “fix it mode.” Once they feel some empathy (or self-compassion, if it’s you!), allow your wording to incorporate HRV science. Say, “allow yourself to have a nice long exhale.”  If the person you’re speaking with is intrigued, maybe suggest breathing with four second inhales and six second exhales, and perhaps even point them towards a breath pacer or a means of learning their more precise resonance frequency.

    Access Mental Health Resources

    Tim HerzogTim Herzog, Ed.D., LCP, CMPC, BCB, is a licensed mental health provider in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Florida and Montana. He works with athletes nationally and internationally, and his practice, Reaching Ahead, is located in Annapolis, MD. Herzog is a Fellow with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and serves on the organization’s Ethics Committee. He is a Certified Mental Performance Coach (CMPC), is listed on the USOPC Sport Psychology (2012 to present) and Mental Health (2021 to present) Registries and is Board Certified in Biofeedback (BCB). Mindful of the power of relationships, he conducts evidence-based practice, pulling from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Mindfulness based approaches, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy and Interpersonal Process. Herzog also pulls wisdom from his years of coaching, notably having served as Head Coach of the Boston College Sailing Team 2001-2002, when the team placed 5th at ICSA Co-Ed Nationals and received 4 All-American honors (more than ever prior in BC history).

  • 2022 ACSM Annual Meeting Highlighted Sessions in Immunology, Genetics and Endocrinology

    by Caitlin Kinser | May 02, 2022


    DNA strand in gold and black
    2022 Annual Meeting
    It is my pleasure to serve as the ACSM topical representative for Immunology, Genetics, and Endocrinology. The 2022 ACSM Annual Meeting will feature several outstanding sessions on the interactions between hormones, immunology and genetics with exercise and disease across the lifespan. There are three sessions that I think will be of particular interest to conference attendees. The first is a highlighted symposium entitled, “Genetics of Musculoskeletal Disease.” This important session is scheduled for June 1st (Wednesday) from 9:30 -11:30 a.m. The symposium will be chaired by Vanessa Sherk, Ph.D., and features three exceptional speakers who are making their debut at the ACSM Annual Meeting: Cheryl Ackert-Bicknell, Ph.D., Struan Grant, Ph.D., and Charles Farber, Ph.D. This session will discuss recently discovered genetic targets related to rare and common muscle and bone diseases that are also influenced by exercise (e.g., osteoporosis), and will provide important insights into some of the experimental approaches used to study these areas. 

    The second symposium I would like to highlight is entitled, “The Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance- Addressing the Sex and Gender Gaps in Sports Performance Research.” This session is scheduled for June 3rd (Friday) from 9:30 -11:30 a.m., will be Chaired by Kathryn Ackerman, M.D., FACSM, and features four outstanding presenters: Louise Burke, Ph.D., FACSM; Kirsty Elliot-Sale, Ph.D.; Trent Stellingwerff, Ph.D., FACSM; and Emily Kraus, M.D. Topics will include guidelines for assessing effects of the menstrual cycle on performance, considerations for studying exercise in pregnancy, best practices for undertaking nutrition research in female athletes, important sports science questions for the menopausal athlete and unique approaches to dissemination of findings to the broader community. 

    The final symposium that I would like to highlight is entitled, “HERITAGE Family Study at 25: Summary of Training Effects on Fitness, Reproducibility, Genomics and Molecular Transducers,” and features four experts related to the HERITAGE study. The session is scheduled for June 3th (Saturday) from 9:00-11:00 a.m. Speakers include, Mark Sarzynski, Ph.D., FACSM; Jacob Barber, Ph.D; Sujoy Ghosh, Ph.D; Jeremy Robbins, M.D. The goal of this symposium is to summarize some of the findings of HERITAGE and their potential implications for cardiometabolic health and cardiorespiratory fitness. 

    In addition to these sessions there will a Tutorial Session on “Keeping Pace with Advances in Exercise Genetics” on June 2nd (Thursday), at 10:40 a.m., a thematic poster session on “Rodent Studies Combining Immunotherapy and Exercise to Treat Cancer” on June 2nd (Thursday), at 3:45 p.m., oral sessions “Genetic Regulators and Responses to Exercise” on June 1st (Wednesday), at 3:15 p.m. and “Immune and Inflammation and Exercise” on June 3rd(Friday), at 1:30 p.m. and poster sessions spread throughout the week.  

    Learn more about additional sessions in Immunology, Genetics and Endocrinology and the many other sessions that will be presented at the 2022 ACSM Annual Meeting. 

    Vanessa Sherk, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. She is the ACSM Annual Meeting Program Committee topical rep for immunology, genetics and endocrinology.