Everyone knows exercise is good for them – but how good? The average person is aware that physical activity is beneficial for the cardiovascular system - but the multitude of other advantages are often unknown or overlooked. Physical activity is, hands down, the most powerful factor associated with living a long, healthy life. I base this statement on numerous longitudinal studies that have isolated out physical activity from other health-promoting behaviours. That being said, there is no doubt that a healthy diet, good sleep, and good stress management techniques also play a crucial role. There is a synergistic relationship between various health-promoting behaviors - for example, regular activity promotes better sleep, but good quality sleep is necessary to get the most out of your workouts. Despite the unequivocal advantages of living an active life, less than 30 percent of North Americans get the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise (CDC, 2007). Perhaps this would be different if people knew the tremendous health protection this small time commitment confers.
While it is possible to increase strength and aerobic capacity at any age, it is always better to start before major health problems develop. The reasons for this are twofold: there is a cumulative beneficial effect of time spent exercising on health outcomes, and secondly higher intensity exercise will result in a more meaningful impact on aerobic capacity (cardiovascular fitness level, or VO2 max) - low aerobic capacity is the most powerful predictor of mortality. Start when you are healthy so you can establish joint stabilization and muscle strength, which generally results in less pain and loss of function from osteoarthritis, a common barrier to more intense exercise in the older adult population.
Exercise reduces risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)! Increasing physical activity to a total of at least 1000 calories per week is associated with a 20% reduction of mortality in men. Another study from 2004 found that physically inactive middle-aged women doubled their risk of mortality from CVD compared to their physically active counterparts. It should be emphasized that preventing CVD is a multi-factorial process which involves not smoking, being physically active, good dietary choices, staying lean, and avoiding stress and depression.
Exercise prevents diabetes! Type II (adult onset) diabetes has reached epidemic proportions, affecting 170 million individuals worldwide. One consequence of physical inactivity is the weakening of the body’s insulin regulatory mechanisms. Type II diabetes is also growing among children and youth – something that twenty years ago no would have believed could happen – largely as a result of obesity and inactivity.
Exercise prevents hypertension! Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major health problem which is associated with the development of coronary heart disease, congestive failure, stroke and kidney failure. Moderate intensity exercise performed 3-5 times per week for 30-60 minutes appears to be effective at reducing elevated blood pressure. There is no evidence that higher intensity activity is more effective at reducing hypertension. This is welcome news for those who can’t engage in – or detest – hard exercise!
Exercise helps manage blood triglycerides, cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol! The research is clear - to manage these risk factors, 1200-2200 calories of energy expenditure per week must be accomplished. This is equivalent to 15-20 miles per week of brisk walking or jogging. Please note that it is rare for total cholesterol to decrease – rather, an increase of HDL (“good cholesterol”) is what we usually observe.
Exercise reduces the risk of stroke! It does this by helping manage blood pressure, enhancing vasodilation of blood vessels. Furthermore, exercise improves the body’s ability to break down glucose, and promotes cardiovascular health in general.
Exercise reduces the risk of colon, breast, lung, and multiple myeloma cancers! For cancer, moderate to vigorous activity is more protective than low-intensity exercise, and 30-60 minutes per day is necessary to achieve this risk reduction.
Exercise reduces the risk of osteoporosis! Osteoporosis is a degenerative bone disease characterized by a loss of bone mineral density, leading to a vulnerability for bone fractures. Physical activity that stimulates bone growth must include progressive overload – for example, gradually increasing the amount of weight you are able to use for specific strength training exercises. Weight bearing aerobic exercise may provide the necessary stimulus for bone formation as well – when it is done regularly on a long-term basis.
Exercise helps maintain a healthy weight! Most people who stay lean, especially as they age, exercise regularly.
Exercise prevents age-associated muscle loss! Muscle loss, called sarcopenia, usually occurs with age. Most adults lose 1-2% of their muscle mass per year after the age of 50. There is a positive relationship between the loss of muscle strength and the loss of independence. Mitigating this muscle loss results in a decreased chance of falls, fractures, and admissions into nursing homes.
Exercise helps manage arthritis! It improves aerobic capacity (markedly reduced in most individuals with arthritis), muscle strength, joint mobility, functional capacity, and mood.
Exercise reduces stress! Research demonstrates that those who exercise regularly are far more capable of managing stress than those that don’t. Of all the modalities of exercise, cardiovascular training is most effective at achieving this objective.
Exercise improves mood state! Both cardiovascular and resistance training positively affect various mood states, including tension, fatigue, anger and vigor (a psychological term denoting vitality or energy) in normal and clinical populations.
Exercise helps to prevent and mange depression! Cardiovascular and resistance training appear to be equally effective in assisting in the management of depression. It is interesting to note that the greatest anti-depressive effect seems to occur after 17 weeks of exercise, although positive changes can be observed after 4 weeks.
Exercise helps to prevent and manage anxiety! Studies show that aerobic training is most useful for anxiety disorders. Even short bursts of five minutes can be helpful.
Exercise improves self-esteem! People who exercise regularly feel better about themselves and their role in life.
Exercise Specialist Recommendations: Programming for specific health problems is challenging and requires a tremendous amount of expertise, which cannot be provided within the context of this post. With that in mind, my advice to you is incredibly simple: incorporate a 30 minute walk 5-7 days a week. Do not worry how fast or slow – just get moving. The other pieces will fall into place. And remember, the vast majority of exercisers in the longitudinal studies I mentioned earlier were walkers.
Have a great workout today!