The Unfortunate Case for Exercise
People with low levels of physical activity are at higher risk for many different kinds of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and early death by any cause. That’s at the end of life. Long before that, inactivity can worsen arthritis symptoms, increase lower-back pain and lead to depression and anxiety.
How Did We Get Here?
What's interesting to me is that MDs used to be the original PE teachers. Before doctors adopted a single-minded focus on treating and curing diseases, their main goal was to keep people healthy. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates said, “Eating alone will not keep a man well. He must also take exercise.”
But with the rise of modern surgery and drugs in the early 1900's, medicine shifted its focus from the prevention to treatment. A paper published in a 1905 issue of JAMA was alarmed at how many people were disregarding the health benefits of exercise. Speaking of college athletes (paraphrasing):
"The men on the teams are the very ones whom nature has endowed with physical capacity, and PE directors spend most of their energies on them, while the average student is left to get his physical development by yelling from the bleachers.”
Many U.S. schools have cut gym classes cut from the curriculum; nearly half of high school students don’t have weekly PE class, and only 15% of elementary schools require PE at least three days a week. The result: the majority of American kids and adolescents have so-called exercise-deficit disorder and childhood-obesity rates have climbed every year since 1999.
MDs have to stop saying, "You need to do more exercise." That's like saying, "Here, take some pills." Exercise needs to be "prescribed" in that patients will get a detailed exercise plan tailored to make their medications work better and take less of them.
And there are many ways to get both the aerobic and anaerobic exercise that you need - its not just running and weight lifting. Don't like weightlifting? Try yoga, tai chi and Pilates instead... me? I'm a Pilates fan. Finding the right exercise for your interest and lifestyle is the key to success.
Good for Your Brain Too
Recent research links exercise to less depression, better memory and quicker learning. Studies also suggest that exercise is, as of now, the best way to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. It improves blood flow to the brain, feeding the growth of new blood vessels and even new brain cells.
Repairs like this throughout the body may be the reason exercise has been shown to extend life span by as much as five years. A small new study suggests that moderate-intensity exercise may slow down the aging of cells. As humans get older and their cells divide over and over again, their telomeres – the protective caps on the end of chromosomes – get shorter.
To see how exercise affects telomeres, researchers took a muscle biopsy and blood samples from 10 healthy people before and after a 45-minute ride on a stationary bicycle. They found that exercise increased levels of a molecule that protects telomeres, ultimately slowing how quickly they shorten over time. Exercise, then, appears to slow aging at the cellular level.
It's a bummer but people may actually gain weight after they start exercising, whether from new muscle mass or a fired-up appetite.
How Much Exercise Do We Need?
Micro workout (HIIT) sessions were compared with a standard 50-minutes-at-a-time approach. The micro-workouts consisted of three 20-second all-out, hard-as-you-can exercise, followed by brief recoveries. There were identical improvements in heart function and blood-sugar control, even though one workout was five times longer than the other.
Older people, too, can benefit from strenuous exercise. Lifting lighter weights for more reps improves bone density in key parts of the body, making it a good alternative to heavy lifting.
It’s becoming evident that nearly everyone – young, old, pregnant, ill – benefits from exercise. And you don't need a gym membership to get healthy exercise - the pandemic proved that. So, get off the couch and go for a walk, rake some leaves, clean the house... your life will thank you for it.
Interested in learning more about diabetes and exercise? Download my e-book, Balance: The Fundamentals of Diabetes Exercise Management.