The Real Impact of Exercise

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More and more research each year indicates that the most effective way to improve quality of life and duration of life is exercise. In 2011, a research group headed by Tarnopolsky studied mice having a genetic disease that caused premature aging. The study conducted over five months kept half of the mice in a sedentary state and the other half in an exercise state by stimulating the mice to run three times per week on miniature treadmills. Upon completion of the study the sedentary mice’s hair began to fall out and grow coarse and gray. Their muscles and cardiac system atrophied and weakened. They were noted appear on the precipice of death.

However, the group of mice that exercised, even though they shared the same premature aging genes as the sedentary mice, were nearly indistinguishable from healthy mice. Their coats were sleek and black, they ran around their cages and even reproduced. In essence the effects of moderate regular exercise almost completely prevented the premature aging in the animals.

Positive changes occur throughout the body

In studies where blood is drawn immediately after people exercised, researchers have found that many positive changes occur throughout the body during and right after a workout. Running improves skin health, eye health, and gonadal health. If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.

Unfortunately, only 20% of Americans get the recommended 150 minutes of strength and cardiovascular physical activity per week. More than half of all baby boomers report not exercising whatsoever, and 80.2 million Americans over age six are entirely inactive! This defies the very essence of what makes our biological systems work properly and last.

The consequences of a sedentary life

The consequences of a sedentary life are as well documented as they are dire. Becoming inactive signals death of the bottom, sending chemical changes induced by inactivity to adversely affect health of tissues. Being inactive accelerates death of mitochondria, the power houses in each cell in the body, slows metabolisms and results in dramatic loss of energy and endurance. Consequently, 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.

The health benefits of exercise have not been effectively communicated

Despite public-awareness wellness campaigns, the health benefits of exercise have not been effectively communicated to the average American. If communicated, the benefits are being ignored. Let’s face it, people are notoriously bad at assessing the long-term benefits and risks of their lifestyle choices. Vague promises that exercise is “good for you” or even “good for the heart” generally pass through one ear and out of the other, obviously missing the power to motivate most people to do something they think is a chore. Humans are, however, motivated by rewards. This is why scientific research must be more focused on proving that exercise truly slows aging, improves mood and energy, prevents and/or reduces chronic pain, improves vision and hearing, improves strength, balance and coordination (thereby reducing one of the biggest threats to older people – falls), improves digestion, improves cognition and memory and significantly prevents diseases such as diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and cancer. In fact the benefits of exercise are not only measurable but they are also almost immediate.

“Eating alone will not keep a man well”

Hippocrates famously wrote: “Eating alone will not keep a man well. He must also take exercise.” For millennia, doctors were the vanguards of physical education-the original PE teachers. But in the early 1900s, with the rise of modern surgery and nascent pharmaceuticals, medicine shifted its focus from the prevention of disease to its treatment. Physicians de-emphasized exercise just as the modern Olympics swelled in popularity and colleges began building campus stadiums to accommodate America’s growing love of spectator sports.

Many U.S. schools have seen 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 for the school year. The result: the majority of American kids and adolescents have so-called exercise-deficit disorder. Childhood obesity rates have climbed every year since 1999.

Exercise Basics

Incorporating exercise into your week doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some common exercise questions, answered.

How much exercise do I really need to be doing?

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise most adults to do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week and twice-weekly muscle strengthening.

What counts as moderate-intensity exercise?

Everything you think of as exercise plus lots of stuff you don’t, including brisk walking, playing with the kids, walking the dog, carrying heavy groceries or gardening. Do at least 10 minutes at a time and break it up however you want.

Is high-intensity interval training as good as regular exercise?

More research is needed, but evidence suggests that short, all-out bursts of exercise bring unique benefits. They’re also a great option for the time-crunched. New research shows that as long as you go hard, interval exercises are just as effective as longer workouts, even for people with some chronic diseases. However, due to the sudden impact of all-out bursts of exercise it is advisable to have a proper medical physical before going that route.

I hate lifting weights. Can I just do aerobics (cardio)?

No. Not if your goal is to live longer and healthier. To obtain optimum health, you must do both. Strengthening and aerobic exercises offer different benefits. Aerobics will prevent you from being winded after climbing stairs while strength training will build muscles and bone, which protect against injury.

In addition to the heart, muscles, lungs and bones, scientists are finding that another major beneficiary of exercise is improved brain function and the prevention of early onset of dementia. 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, which is second only to cancer as the disease Americans fear most, according to surveys.

Studies show that exercise improves bloodflow to the brain, feeding the growth of new blood vessels and even new brain cells, courtesy of the protein BDNF, short for brain-derived neurotrophic factors. BDNF triggers the growth of new neurons and helps repair and protect brain cells from degeneration. People should view exercise as a regenerative medicine that restores and biologically repairs damaged body tissues.

Biological repairs from exercise have been shown to extend life span by as much as five years. A 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 double helix chromosomes, cause the chromosome strands to become shorter (as if the telomere clips off pieces of the chromosome bit by bit.) At a certain stage (originally known as the Hayflick limit) the telomeres cause the chromosomes to become so short that the human host essentially reaches the termination point of life and dies. Discounting a fatal accident or disease, the question may be in regards to longevity of life is how long will it take for a person to reach his/her Hayflick limit? It is exciting to note that studies have shown that exercise increases levels of a molecule that protects telomeres, ultimately slowing how quickly they shorten the chromosomes over time. In essence, the effect of exercise through its impacts on telomeres slows down the aging process at the cellular level.

For all its merits, however, exercise is not an effective way to lose weight, research has shown. In a cruel twist, many people actually gain weight after they start exercising, whether from new muscle mass or a fired-up appetite. “Some people say exercise doesn’t do anything,” says researcher John Jakicic of the University of Pittsburg. “Well, Exercise does a lot. It just may not show up on the scale.”

One of the best pieces of news is that so much of what we already do counts as physical activity. Performing yard work, washing the car and working on repairing a fence are all forms of exercise. Many years ago our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to be physically active all day in order to survive. Research shows that the average hunter gatherer actually had a very athletic body. Today, modern man no longer has to hunt for food or grow his crops. Much of our day to day physical activities have been replaced by modern conveniences. So we must remember, physical activity includes all movement, not just going jogging or playing a game of basketball.

What’s more, emerging research suggests that it doesn’t take much movement to get the benefits. “We’ve been interested in the question of, ‘How low can you go?’” says Martin Gibala, an exercise physiologist at McMaster University. After all, if it were possible to reap all the health benefits of exercise in a tiny fraction of the time, who wouldn’t be compelled to give it a try?

Gibala wanted to test how efficient and effective a 10-minute workout could be, compared with the standard 50-minutes-at-a-time approach. The micro-workout he devised consist of three exhausting 20-second bouts of all-out, hard-as-you-can exercise, followed by brief recoveries. In a three-month study, he pitted the short workout against the standard one to see which was better.

To his amazement, the workouts resulted in identical improvements in heart function and blood-sugar control, even though one workout was five times longer than the other. If you’re willing and able to push hard, you can get away with surprisingly little exercise,” Gibala says.

It’s becoming evident that nearly everyone regardless of age or medical condition benefits from exercise. Back at McMaster University, Tarnopolsky and his team perform autopsies on mice from their study, and even though they design the study to be blind to which groups the mice are in, they can tell with certainty which animals were allowed to exercise and which were sedentary. Tarnopolsky stated, “You open up the sedentary mice and there’s fat all over the place,” he says. About half of those mice have tumors. “They just look god-awful.” As for the mice who hit the wheel ever day? “We haven’t found a single tumor.” “I think if people saw, they’d be pretty motivated to exercise.”

Aerobic Exercises

Walking | This low impact exercise improves memory, well-being, heart health and even creativity.

Cycling | Cycling increases brain connectivity and improves a depressed mood.

Running |Running improves sleep and strengthens bones. Even just a five- to ten-minute jog is linked to a longer life.

Strengthening Exercises

Yoga | Lift your own body weight and flow through intense poses and yoga will give you strength with a side of mindfulness and stress relief.

Weight Training | A cheap pair of weights will build muscle and strengthen bone at any age. As an alternative, try resistance bands.

Tai Chi | These slow, gentle movements might not look like much, but tai chi strengthens the back, abs and upper and lower body. It also relieves pain.

100 | Number of extra calories per day a person can burn just by doing more active things like taking the stairs, fidgeting, singing and laughing.

30% | The percentage by which people who move a lot during the day reduce their risk of early death, regardless of how much they exercise.


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