In April, the AARP asked me to help moderate an international meeting of 15 exercise scientists in Vancouver. Their goal was to write a consensus statement about how best to use exercise to promote health (specifically “brain health”). What types of exercise are ideal? Is walking as good as running? Does yoga count? How do we measure exercise—as a matter of heart rate, calories burned, or simply of time spent? All or none, of these?
I was blunt about my skepticism. These are huge questions. I’m not convinced that brain health is a thing that can be pursued separately from any other type of health. And I’ve been in enough meetings where scientists try to reach a consensus. It’s fun if you’re into watching people argue.
Which I am, so I said I’d do it. It seemed like a learning opportunity, and I like threatening to cut people’s microphones when they talk too much (even when I don’t actually have that power). So I flew to Vancouver, to a windowless conference room. All of the scientists sat the entire time, as people in meetings do, even when they’re exercise scientists. I paced in the back as the debates drew on.
But despite my pessimism and negativity, they ultimately accomplished more than I expected. The AARP published its statement last month. First among the experts’ conclusions was, somewhat on the nose, “physical activity has a positive impact on brain health.” Even that was a contestable assertion. But, the group concluded, “Based on epidemiological evidence, people who lead a physically active lifestyle have lower risk of cognitive decline.”