The Latest Wellness News and Research

Learn about "active academics" for kids, midlife exercise and brain health, and mindfulness for managing chronic lower-back pain.

By Shirley Archer, JD, MA
Apr 27, 2016

Active Lesson Plans for Kids

If you were an elementary-school fidgeter, you may have wished your math lessons could include jumping jacks. Recently, a group of second- and third-graders in the Netherlands achieved better test scores in math and reading when the classroom studies integrated exercises. Scientists from the University of Groningen, in Groningen, Netherlands, wanted to determine whether combining exercises with reading, spelling and math lessons would improve performance. For example, a child solving a multiplication problem of four times two would jump eight times in one spot.

Investigators followed students from 24 classrooms at 12 elementary schools for 2 years; the children were divided into a control group and a group of students who participated in “active” lessons. The researchers noted students’ scores on standardized math, reading and spelling tests before the study and after the first and second academic years. Data analysis showed that the active-learning kids scored higher in math and spelling, but not in reading.

Study authors noted, “These findings suggest physically active academic lessons should be part of the school curriculum because it is an innovative and effective way for teachers to improve children’s academic achievement.” Authors of an editorial comment about the study said that physically active school lessons show much potential for helping children to improve academically and physically and to promote health. Researchers noted that more study is needed to determine whether such educational methods would work with disadvantaged children and those from culturally diverse backgrounds.

The study is available in Pediatrics (2016; doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-2743), with a comment in the same issue.

Midlife Exercise and the Aging Brain

Here’s a great exercise motivator. A study reported in Neurology (2016; 86, 1-7) has found that poor physical fitness in middle age was linked with smaller brain size in later life. “We found a direct correlation in our study between poor fitness and brain volume decades later, which indicates accelerated brain aging,” said lead study author Nicole Spartano, PhD, based at Boston University School of Medicine, in a Boston University news release.

Boston University researchers examined whether poor cardiovascular fitness and exaggerated exercise blood pressure and heart rate were associated with brain structure changes in later life. Investigators acquired data from the Framingham Offspring Study, which included 1,583 men and women, with an average age of 40, who did not have heart disease or dementia and who took a treadmill test. Approximately 20 years later, each participant underwent another treadmill test and an MRI brain scan. Researchers excluded subjects with heart disease or dementia at the second examination, reducing the total to 1,094 people.

Data review showed that the lower peak VO2 was in study subjects, the less brain volume they had two decades later. Also, people whose blood pressure and heart rate went up at a higher rate during exercise were more likely to have smaller brain volume 20 years later. The study was observational and does not prove that poor fitness causes brain tissue loss; it only shows an association. Study authors concluded that, while more research is necessary, promoting midlife aerobic fitness may be important for healthy brain aging.

Mindfulness Helps Older Adults With Chronic Lower-Back Pain

Mindfulness meditation skills may help older adults with chronic lower-back pain not only to function better in daily activities but also to reduce and manage pain, suggests a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine (2016; 176 [3], 329-37).

“Since effective treatments for chronic low back pain are limited, complementary medical therapies are a welcome addition to conventional treatments,” said lead study author Natalia Morone, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, in a University of Pittsburgh news release.

Investigators recruited 282 adults aged 65 or older, with daily or almost daily chronic lower-back pain, to determine the effectiveness of an 8-week mind-body program. Participants were randomly assigned to either a control group or the mind-body group, which attended eight 90-minute weekly sessions. All mind-body group members learned three mindfulness meditation methods: a body scan done while lying down; a sitting practice with a focus on observing breath, thoughts, emotions and sensations; and walking meditation. Teachers encouraged home practice.

Data analysis of measures of pain, physical function, self-efficacy and quality of life collected before the program, after it and 6 months later, showed that at program end, mind-body group members experienced functional improvement, less pain and a better ability to manage pain, compared with control group subjects. After 6 months, many had lost their functional improvements, but most still had less pain and better coping skills. Researchers concluded that a mindfulness program could play a treatment role for chronic lower-back pain in older adults.

“Mindfulness meditation focuses on letting go of struggle and accepting one’s condition without judgment,” said Morone. “The mind-body program teaches patients how to be more aware of their thoughts, emotions, sensations and behaviors. As patients learn to do this, they can become more aware of behaviors or even thoughts and feelings about pain that make it worse, or more difficult for them to do activities.”

More research is recommended to refine the mindfulness program in a way that will enhance maintenance of the functional improvements experienced by program participants.

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Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in Los Angeles, California, and Zurich, Switzerland. Two of her books, The Walking Deck and The Strength and Toning Deck, are now featured as iPhone apps. Contact her at www.shirleyarcher.com.

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