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November 13, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – People who stay physically active as they age also fare well mentally – and Catholic religious Sisters are prime examples.

That was one of the key results of the Sisters In Exercise and Neuro Activity (SIENA) Study, conducted in June 2018 by Adrian Dominican Sister Mariane Fahlman, OP, Professor of Health Education and Jeanne Barcelona, Assistant Professor of Health and Physical Education, both of Wayne State University. The study involved 30 Adrian Dominican Sisters.

Sister Mariane Fahlman, OP, right, conducts a strength test on Sister Carol Coston, OP.

Sister Mariane, who began her research career researching aging and physical fitness, teamed with Jeanne, who has a background in cognitive research, to conduct the study.

Sister Mariane and Jeanne will formally present their findings at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Studies in May 2019, and then will publish their findings. Sister Mariane hopes to get funding to conduct a similar study with 300 to 400 people, not only religious Sisters. “That would give us a broader range to study from,” she said. 

In the three-part study, the Sisters in Adrian spent 30 minutes in strength and physical testing, about 40 minutes in cognitive testing, and about an hour in the portion that studied brain wave activities during prayer. 

“I’m always interested in keeping people healthy as they age, and as Dominicans we live an average of seven to 10 years longer than the rest of the female population,” Sister Mariane explained. “That’s not necessarily good if we’re spending those 10 years with a reduced quality of life.” But the SIENA Study showed that the Sisters who were physically healthy were mentally alert as well. 

“The Sisters have much better physical functioning than the general population, probably the result of living in an environment that requires long-distance walking every day,” Sister Mariane explained, citing the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse campus as an example. An earlier study that Sister Mariane had conducted of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM Sisters) in Monroe, Michigan, showed similar results, she said. 

“Two things stood out,” Sister Mariane explained. “People who scored the highest in fitness also scored the highest in mental functioning.” In addition, she said, a surprise finding for her was that, when the Sisters prayed the Our Father, the alpha wave of their brains spiked. “I did not think that there would be a difference between saying the Our Father and sitting in silence,” she said. “Prayer is beneficial for many reasons."

The SIENA Study also showed that prayer immediately took away the tension in the temples of the Sisters, showing that rote prayer has a calming effect, Sister Mariane said. Prayer would be especially beneficial for people from the United States, she said. “Only here in this country is there always tension on the temples.” 

Another key finding, Sister Mariane said, is that “the same things that keep your body healthy keep your mind sharp: plant-based diet, aerobic exercise, socialization.” 

Sister Peg O’Flynn, OP, right, explains the “Get up and Go” test to Sister Ann Romayne Fallon, OP.

In revealing the findings of the SIENA Study to the Sisters who participated, Sister Mariane made three major recommendations for keeping the body and mind healthy:

  • Keep moving. Moving is crucial for good functional capacity as well as cognition with aging. Many forms of dementia have roots in the cardiovascular system and are best prevented by maintaining a strong vascular system through regular physical activity. When talking about memory issues, scientists use the term “neuroplasticity.” This refers to the brain’s ability to form new neural connections. Physical activity, such as walking, has been repeatedly shown to increase neuroplasticity and the volume of the hippocampus.

  • Keep learning. Some areas can be improved simply by forcing the mind to learn new things. This improves the part of memory called “attention” and enables a person to concentrate on one thing while filtering out distractions. Practice increases competency, but that competency is limited to the tasks practiced. Learning new tasks like playing a musical instrument or learning another language has also been shown to increase connectivity in the brain.
  • Be present to the moment. Memory can be impacted by distractions. Practice becoming fully present in your daily life. Observing every moment, as you live it, can significantly help with mind-wandering and distractions when trying to remember information. A good deal of research now indicates that meditation and prayer also increase neuroplasticity.

Sister Mariane also noted that sleep is as important as exercise to keep a healthy mind and body. During deep stages of sleep, cells in the brain clear out the plaque that causes Alzheimer’s. “Most people get an hour or two of deep sleep a night,” she said. If you get less because of sleep apnea or insomnia, “you need to get [this condition] corrected because it puts you at risk of dementia.”

In addition, Sister Mariane recommended that people develop their balance as they grow older to prevent falls. She suggested exercises such as standing on one foot while microwaving food or drink and standing on one foot during one set of TV commercials and on the other foot during another set. 

Sister Mariane said no one is too young to start developing these habits to maintain physical and mental health. “The sooner you start building your reserve, the better,” she said.

Featured photo: Jeanne Barcelona, Assistant Professor of Health and Physical Education at Wayne State University, left, conducts a test on Sister Peg O’Flynn, OP, as part of the Sisters In Exercise and Neuro Activity (SIENA) Study she conducted with Sister Mariane Fahlman, OP, Professor of Health Education at Wayne State University.



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