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Study: Lifelong fitness may make you sharper

Kevin Steiner of Williston Park, 40, works for the American Institute of Physics and speaks Mandarin.

New Hyde Park's Lesli Hiller, 49, is an attorney for the Nassau County Police Department, and also teaches in Hofstra University's paralegal studies program.

Is there a connection between Steiner and Hiller's brainy professional achievements and the fact that both have been running since they were kids?

A new study suggests there may be: The study, published in April in the journal Neurology, first looked at the results of research done in the mid-1980s, designed to assess the risk of coronary artery disease among young adults. About 5,100 subjects, average age 25 at the time, underwent a series of tests, one of which was a treadmill run completed to exhaustion.

A quarter-century later, many of these original subjects were asked to repeat the treadmill run for the current investigation. They were then asked to undergo a battery of cognitive tests. The results: "Those who had been fitter in their 20s, or who had maintained or even increased their fitness relative to others their age into their 40s, did better on the cognitive tests," says the study's senior author, David Jacobs, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota.

Jacobs emphasizes that what the study simply shows is that physical activity can benefit brain health; and that it's never too late for anyone to accrue those benefits by becoming active.

Still, it's hard not to wonder if Steiner and Hiller's ongoing intellectual accomplishments aren't at least partially related to decades of consistent exercise.

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Steiner, who grew up in Brunswick, Maine, started running in third grade. He competed in high school and at Furman University in South Carolina. He has continued to run competitively for most of his adult life. In addition to his work in marketing for the Institute, which is based in Melville, Steiner is a voracious reader. He just read the five-volume series that begins with "Game of Thrones," which, he says, "was an endurance event of its own." He also ran the Boston Marathon.

Hiller, who grew up in East Rockaway and Garden City, is a graduate of St. John's University Law School and formerly worked in the Nassau County District Attorney's office. She ran cross country at Sacred Heart Academy, competes in triathlons and is a lifelong equestrian. She loves true- crime books. "It's the prosecutor in me," she says, laughing.

Neither Steiner nor Hiller were surprised that the study found a correlation between physical activity and cognitive performance.

"If I have to read an important document," says Hiller, "I try to do it after I work out. I'm more alert and can focus better."

Steiner agrees, citing a period when his three daughters (now ages 6, 7 and 8) were in diapers, during which he ran sporadically. "I always felt sluggish, physically and mentally." Now he's running and sleeping consistently. "That's when I feel my best," he says.

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