Exploring Retirement


Welcome to the ninth edition of Exploring Retirement! This month we are looking at the most important organ in the body, the brain and how we can look after it.

Guest contributor, Michael McSorley has been working as a volunteer with the World Police and Fire Gamers and he tells us about his experiences in his monthly blog.

Feedback from readers is welcomed, why not send us your thoughts on how you like to keep mentally and physically active? Write to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

The Brain

New research into the brain and how it changes as we grow older has been accelerating in the past few years. Technology such as magnetic resonance imaging has allowed scientists to observe changes in the brain without recourse to invasive surgery. What this research is revealing is that the brain is much more responsive to lifestyle choices than was previously thought. In particular, staying physically active in our later years seems to promote positive change.

Professors Art Kramer and Ed McAuley studied the effect of exercise on the brains of sedentary volunteers, aged 60 through 79 years old, who participated in a six-month exercise program. Half of the volunteers did aerobic exercises such as walking. The other half did non-aerobic stretching and toning exercises. The participants in the aerobic exercise group showed increases in brain volume compared with the other participants. The prefrontal and temporal cortices - areas that show considerable age-related deterioration - incurred the greatest gains from aerobic exercise.

Research published by neurologist Dr Scott Small found that volunteers who engaged in a three month exercise programme showed a 30% increase in the volume of their hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory and spatial relationships. In a 1999 study using macaque monkeys, cells generated in the hippocampus were found to have migrated to the cortex, the centre of the mind's ability to reason and think. Once the arrived they "plugged in" and became a new part of the brains central circuitry. This is effectively a natural regenerative mechanism.

In a recently published study, Dr Eadaoin W. Griffin, a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin, gave students a series of memory tests were the students watched a rapidly moving lineup of photos showing the faces and names of strangers. This was followed by a short period of high-intensity cycling which resulted in enhanced performance of the face-name matching. These changes in cognitive function were paralleled by an increased concentration of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) in the blood of the exercising subjects. BDNF promotes the growth of dendrites, the branching arms of brain cells which allow contact between one brain cell and another.

Finally, the Canadian Study of Health and Ageing which followed over 10,000 elderly Canadians over a ten-year period from 1991 to 200, found that high levels of physical activity reduced by half the risk of cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease and dementia. The message would appear to be clear - get active, stay active and exercise your brain as well as your body.

Featured Activity


Cycling is an ideal form of aerobic exercise as it places low levels of stress on the joints. By hopping on a bike, either outdoors or in a gym, you are improving your endurance, fitness abilities and your cardiovascular health. Because it uses the large muscles in your leg, cycling also assists your heart muscle to pump blood around your body, with the resultant benefits for your brain mentioned above. Biking also burns an abundance of calories and revs up your metabolism, which means this form of exercise fights fat and facilitates your weight loss efforts.

Biking is an extremely versatile activity and can be performed pretty much anywhere. A perfect weekend activity would be to take the family on a nice long bike ride. You can mix up your routes so it never gets old - bike along the beach, a park, or even through the mountains if you're extremely adventurous. Biking is the perfect exercise if you're on vacation, as you will be able to check out some undiscovered scenery while fitting in a workout. You can also join a biking group, and even gather up some friends and start your own biking club.

You can also use a stationary bike in a gym, or purchase one for your home, and reap the same fitness and health benefits. Another great way to fit biking into your fitness routine is to participate in a spinning class. This class offers you an intense biking experience, and the chance to follow an experienced instructor who will ensure you challenge yourself and burn maximum calories. The class combines strenuous climbs with short sprints, and is the ultimate biking workout. Each bike contains a knob that controls intensity, enabling you to add and take away resistance as you choose.

Silver Cyclists Video

Here is a short video from Life Cycle UK. I love the fact that the presenter is sitting in a graveyard!

Useful Links

Cycling in Northern Ireland


Cycling in GB


This is a national cycling club with branches across the UK, geared to "leisure cycling" - perhaps well suited to retired people? It's called CTC, Cyclists Touring Club.