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Benefiting Brains and Balance

June 12, 2024

Through her community fitness classes at the Idaho Falls Family YMCA, Leslee Blanch equips local senior citizens with the tools to help themselves avoid falling, improve cognitive function and stave off dementia.

Blanch, University of Idaho Extension associate educator, Bonneville County, specializing in family and consumer sciences, is a certified group fitness instructor and registered dietitian whose classes emphasize exercising the brain as much as the body.

Blanch collaborated with the YMCA to launch a weekly class focusing on fall protection for seniors, called Moving for Better Balance, last December. Classes begin at 9:30 a.m. every Wednesday at the YMCA, 155 N. Corner Ave., and are offered free, including those who aren’t YMCA members. Blanch plans to continue the classes year-round, teaching seniors how to strengthen muscles and improve their balance, stability and agility to prevent falls. Attendance varies from six to 15 participants per class.

“Improvement in hand-eye coordination, overall body coordination, stability, agility and mental focus are common benefits experienced with focused balance work,” Blanch said. “Balance work combined with gentle strength and flexibility exercises are key in fall prevention, maintaining independence with aging and improving overall quality of life.”

Blanch will host a free workshop teaching simple lifestyle habits to enhance and protect brain function from 6-7 p.m. Thursday, June 13 at the YMCA. The workshop, Brain Health: Protecting Your Cognitive Assets, will cover seven aspects of brain health. Those include nutrition, physical activity, mental exercise, sleep, stress management, minimizing alcohol use and avoiding harmful substances and socialization.

Blanch will serve light snacks — such as chickpea salad and whole-grain crackers — to demonstrate the types of foods people can enjoy to promote brain and overall body health. In general, she advises choosing meals with at least three-quarters plant foods including a variety of colors to get a wide variety of phytonutrients, which are important for cognitive health. She also recommends avoiding processed foods and eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and mono-unsaturated fats such as fish, olive oil and avocado oil.

Blanch encourages up to 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week, plus strength training two to three days per week. Mental exercises, including word games and solving puzzles, help connect neurons and forge new pathways in the brain. Getting adequate sleep is also vital. Blanch cites studies of the brains of Alzheimer’s patients who chronically slept for fewer than seven hours per night. Their brains were smaller than normal, and cells were coated in amyloid plaque that wasn’t removed from the brain during sleep, muffling the ability of the cells to communicate.

“That’s what these seven pillars are about. We can’t control our genes. We can’t control everything in the environment. But let’s focus on what we can control,” Blanch said.

Blanch plans to distribute a survey following the workshop asking participants to specify what they learned, and any specific lifestyle changes they may implement as a result.

The workshop will also kick off a new class Blanch will be offering at the YMCA, called Total Brain and Body. Blanch will undergo special training to offer this 12-week course, which will be open to YMCA members and those who purchase guest passes. This course will be offered one hour per week beginning in early August. Blanch will teach specific movements to benefit people with dementia, and to those wanting to proactively reduce their risk of cognitive decline.

“We hope to draw in folks with some kind of dementia and their caregivers to come and exercise with them because research shows that physical movement can slow down the progression of cognitive decline,” Blanch said.

Seniors who have participated in Blanch’s classes have made significant strides toward improving their balance and overall wellbeing.

“I enjoy the YMCA balance class because it’s an opportunity to stay active and learn the correct movements,” one participant recently told her. “At my last doctor appointment, he told me to keep doing whatever I was doing. I feel that I am not declining.”

Published in Catching Up with CALS

Mental exercises, including word games and solving puzzles, help connect neurons and forge new pathways in the brain.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at uidaho.edu.


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