Exercising. What’s the fuss all about?

Exercise that doesn't feel like exercise!

Yes, we know. It’s good to be physically active (here’s why, in case you didn’t already know). And yes. We should all be doing 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. That’s an average of 20 minutes every day.

That’s about the amount of walking we would get from walking to and from the MRT station or bus stop. Especially if you have to change trains at Dhoby Ghaut.

But having a transportation routine that minimises walking might mean that some of us don’t get the minimum physical activity requirements. What’s the alternative? Doing a weekly 75 minutes of cardiovascular activity in which you reach your optimal heart rate for burning calories. Or some combination of both. Walking the park connectors for 20 minutes after dinner 3 times a week and running up enough stairs for a 10 minute work out every other day, would meet said requirement.

But knowing what to do isn’t the issue. The problem is actually doing it.

When we were hunters and gatherers, we probably wouldn’t have had to attend a lunchtime talk on the health benefits of exercise or signed up for free bootcamp and gym classes. We’d get fit simply from planting vegetables, picking up duck eggs, and paddling to fetch food from the sea.

That’s not to suggest that we need to start doing that now. But there is the possibility that we can be physically active without having to “exercise”. It would certainly make these excuses go away: I don’t have time, I don’t have the determination or discipline, I don’t like getting sweaty, Exercise is boring, and I don’t know how to exercise (so says the CDC). Sound familiar?

We are much more likely to prioritize time for something that we’re interested to learn, be it a self-defense skill like judo, fencing, and wushu or a useful skill such as horse riding. More so when it’s a skill that we’ve challenged ourselves to learn (and paid membership fees for) like yoga (here’s a comprehensive listing).

It definitely won’t be boring.

You won’t need willpower to get to class.

You wouldn’t care whether exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, regardless of whether your BMI or cholesterol is puts you in the high risk category or not (as explained here).

And while you’re busy thinking about steps and music in line dancing (various community centres host social events) and swing dancing (swing dance, what’s that?), sweating will probably be the last thing on your mind. You’ll be surprised how much walking is involved in west coast swing (take classes here) and how much core you need to engage for argentine tango (milongas listed here).

Getting active doesn’t require a manual. It involves doing something fun. Like trampolining and sailing.

Of course, it helps to set concrete goals (Oprah has tips) and mobilize your troops (otherwise known as your friends) for social support. It also helps if you’re not also trying to use self-control in other aspects of your life, such as trying not to eat doughnuts (according to research reported in this APS Observer article). With people stuck with the double whammy of lowering dietary intake and increasing physical output, bootcamps and gym classes come with complimentary workout task masters.

But it’s easier when it’s something that you enjoy. Like shopping…for clothes to go with your new hobby.

Majong is good for you

That majong is good for us is music to our ears (well, at least for some of us who actually play majong). The claim is based on recent research findings, which has led to reports that “tai chi, majong offer hope for dementia patients” (South China Morning Post, 22 April 2013; see also a similar report in www.majongnews.com).

The evidence is based on two studies. The first showed that a 3-times-a-week programme of either tai chi or majong for 12 weeks was significantly more effective in reducing depression scores among older adults with mild dementia and moderate depression in nursing homes than a handicraft control condition (Cheng et al., 2011). The second showed that the same programme was effective in improving cognitive task performance for a sample of 110 participants with the same population characteristics (Cheng et al., 2012); the first study sampled 12 participants for each condition. It’s not the case that the findings are limited to only nursing residents because these results replicate an earlier finding by Cheng and colleagues. Their 2006 study found that playing majong twice or four times a week for a duration of 16 weeks improved the cognitive performance of 62 older adults living in the community.

Although it would appear that playing majong is helpful in protecting against dementia, it would be wise to also observe that the participants in the 2006 study had not played (although they knew how to play) the game for at least 6 months prior to the study. Similarly, nursing residents were also not regularly practising tai chi or playing majong on a regular basis before the intervention programme was implemented. That is to say, there may be some benefit initially of engaging in mentally challenging activities, but at some point the cognitive demand of these activities may not be sustained over the longer term.

So the advice is to provide your brain with opportunities to grow new neural connections. Giving yourself cognitively demanding tasks like mastering a new language, musical instrument, skill, dance, game, or exercise form, serves this purpose. Learning to play a mentally challenging game like Chinese or international chess, weiqi, taboo, scattergories, and majong for the first time will definitely put us out of our comfort zone. But with a little practice (or a lot for strategy games), it likely loses its edge in its ability to build cognitive reserves and its protective cloak against Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re feeling comfortable, whatever you’re doing is not likely to be of extra benefit. If you’re feeling the strain on your brain, you should keep doing it (at least for a while).

Learning is important. But what’s crucial is that we keep levelling up.