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To skillfully dodge flying shoes, exercise is key

December 16, 2008 |  5:49 pm

After President Bush ably dodged two flying shoes at a Baghdad press conference on Sunday, the Internet and water cooler chatter was abuzz, mostly with one keen observation: Bush has amazing reflexes, especially for someone in his 60s.

BushThe video footage shows an agile 62-year-old Bush ducking not one, but two shoe projectiles as they raced past his head. Even Don King weighed in, as the celebrity website TMZ reported the boxing promoter said, "Bush has unbelievable reflexes ... he can stick and move like a boxer!"

Although the incident became fodder for comedians and late-night talk show hosts everywhere, we wondered what was really responsible for the moves, especially considering that as we age, we lose muscle mass, and reflexes slow.

Turns out — no surprise — that being fit is key, says Lynn Millar, a physical therapy professor at Andrews University in Michigan and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. "The most important thing [about Bush] is that he does maintain regular physical activity," she says. "We’ve all seen the pictures of him jogging. Regular physical activity helps to maintain things like reflexes — even if you’re not specifically training them."

How that works is complex, says Millar. "It’s a multi-factoral thing. People who stay active are doing things that keep the blood flowing to the brain and the nerves." Being active, she adds, improves circulation and muscle tone. "If muscles are trained, you’re going to have a better response to any sort of challenge put on it. That’s what helps us get out of trouble fast." Applied to the general population, who are not regularly ducking airborne objects, being more fit can help prevent falls, a hazard as people age. "Regular exercise helps prevent falls in several ways," says Millar. "It allows people to react to a quick challenge, and we know that lack of muscle strength and balance, especially in the lower extremities, increases the risk of falls. If people are inactive, both of those get worse." (The original post said "decreases the risk of falls.")

One study showed that older women who went through resistance and agility training programs had far less risk for falling than those who took part in a stretching program. The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2004, assigned 98 women aged 75 to 85 who had low bone mass to one of three programs. In both the agility and resistance training groups, researchers reported better postural stability and increased strength.

Improvements in strength and cardiovascular function can be seen at any age, even if someone has been sedentary for life, says Dr. Catherine Sarkisian, associate professor of medicine at UCLA. "What happens when we get old is that we have a loss of physiological reserve," she says. "That includes the neuroendocrine system, the musculoskeletal system, and cognitive function. When we’re young and healthy all systems are functioning, and are in excellent communication with each other."

When a healthy, fit person approaches a curb, the body adjusts in time to make the step. In an older, frail person, that adjustment might not happen in time, possibly leading to a fall.

So get some exercise. Even if you’re not dodging shoes, it will still be beneficial.

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Associated Press