Skiing down a mountain is an exhilarating thrill. However, after observing skiers at The Vasaloppet, Researchers at Lund University in Sweden, together with Uppsala University, may have discovered additional benefits to the favored winter past time.
The Vasaloppet is an annual long-distance cross country ski race held in Dalarna, Sweden. Participants may spend months or years of training to race in the event.
Cross Country Ski Racers versus Everyone Else
Researchers collected data and compared the brain health of 200,000 skiers who had competed in the Vasaloppet between the years of 1989 and 2010 and a control group from the general population. The study results demonstrated the dramatic benefits of remaining fit.
Compared to the general population control group, the Vasaloppet skiers were 50% less likely to develop vascular dementia. Vascular dementia occurs when parts of the brain don’t get enough oxygen due to a blockage, like in the event of a stroke. The same risk factors which cause heart disease are the same risk factors that can also cause vascular dementia—smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
The Valasoppet group’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease was also lower than the control group. Parkinson’s is a degenerative brain disease with no known causes or definitive risk factors.
Interestingly, when it came to Alzheimer’s—another degenerative brain disease—the new study showed no difference between the Valasoppet group and the control group. This result conflicts with a previous study using a similar, but smaller, population sample of Valasoppet skiers.
In the smaller study, the risk for developing vascular dementia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s was lower in the Valasoppet group when compared to the control group. In the newer and more extensive study, Alzheimer’s was found to occur in both groups at about the same rate.
The finding regarding Alzheimer’s, in the newer Valasoppet study, also contradicts the results of other research studies, which indicate a relationship between physical activity and the delay or decrease Alzheimer’s symptoms.
When studying depression in both groups, the researchers found that Valasoppet skiers were 50% less likely to develop depression. Also, amongst the Valasoppet skiers, the quickest male skiers (those with the fastest finishing times) had an even lower likelihood of developing depression. This additional buffer against depression, however, seemed only to be present in the males and not the females.
Researchers for the study believe the results illustrate how physical activity influences our cognitive behaviors and mental health. In the case of Alzheimer’s, physical activity may not directly affect the cellular processes which occur to manifest the disease. Physical activity can, however, influence vascular function and inflammation in the brain, which in turn can influence behavior.
Physical activity also appears to create a “reserve” that delays disease onset and symptoms. Consistent physical activity and training may enable individuals to maintain mobility and brain function for more extended periods than individuals who do not physically train.
Exercise not only provides benefits for the body in the immediate future. Exercise may also offer benefits for the body and mind decades later. The next time the couch beckons and the gym seems far away, choose the gym. Daily exercise may not be a cross country ski race, but even short swim or a brisk walk can be beneficial. Every little bit counts. Get active and stay active — the future you might thank you for it one day.