While thirty percent of Americans say they get regular physical activity, forty percent say they get none. With all that’s known about the importance of being active and the benefits it provides to both physical and mental health, Americans’ refusal to start and stick with a regular exercise program is only a few clicks short of insane. Excuses just don’t cut it here, folks. End of story.
Here are 10 reasons why regular exercise is so important to your overall well-being and in achieving optimal health.
1. Helps fight virtually every illness that shortens healthspan. At Ageology, we make a clear distinction between lifespan—the number of years between a person’s first breath and his or her last—and healthspan, the number of years that person spends being healthy and not disabled. Heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis all shorten healthspan. These illnesses, which are typically associated with getting older, can potentially make the last 20 years of a person’s life a daily hell of medical interventions, drug side effects and lack of precious independence. Regular physical activity substantially reduces risk of all these diseases and their subsequent consequences.
2. Reduces blood pressure and blood lipids. Hypertension, high “bad” LDL cholesterol, and high triglycerides all threaten cardiovascular health. Modern medicine employs pharmaceutical strategies to reduce these numbers, but those drugs come at a cost. Using them to address the imbalances that lead to heart disease means bothersome side effects and apathy about taking steps to control these risk factors without drugs. High blood pressure should never go untreated, but regular physical activity can bring it down; it can also reduce “bad” blood fats and boost “good” HDL cholesterol.
3. Reduces risk of colon and breast cancers, and may also reduce lung and endometrial cancer risk. A recent study of 2,560 middle-aged Finnish men found that fairly intense exercise—on par with jogging—had a 50 percent reduction in risk of dying prematurely from cancer. A review published in the British Journal of Cancer found that the most active people are 24 percent less likely to develop colon cancer, regardless of diet, smoking habits or body weight. Similar results are seen with physical activity and breast cancer.
4. Benefits memory and learning. Many studies demonstrate improved thinking ability and memory with physical activity. John Ratey, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, found that moderately intense exercise stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in parts of the brain involved in memory. This indicates a stimulation of memory/learning circuits with exercise.
5. Provides a natural antidepressant. Exercise mediates multiple brain chemicals implicated in depression, including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as a few more esoteric ones (VEGF, BDNF – see #4 – and 5-hydroxytryptophan). Exercise revs up parts of the brain that improve mood, outlook and energy—the three things that plummet when people fall into depressed states. Many studies comparing impact of antidepressants with that of regular, moderately intense exercise demonstrate that working out has an effect equal to or greater than drugs.
6. Keeps muscles and bones strong, preventing falls and fractures. Hip fractures are a devastating and common event in elderly women and men. Muscles that have weakened by inactivity cause them to fall and break a hip; then they have to endure surgery and many, unfortunately, are likely to experience a continued decline in health afterward. Osteoporosis and weak muscles are a healthspan-threatening duo that exercise can help keep out of the picture as you age.
7. Helps prevent weight gain and promotes and maintains weight loss. If there’s one reason why most people drag themselves to the gym on a regular basis, this is it. Regular workouts maintain a healthy metabolism and even energy levels. They keep appetite in check and burn calories so you look and feel good.
8. Gives you a high without drugs! Endorphins, anyone? If you’ve never experienced a “workout high,” you may need to switch your chosen activity. Keep exploring until you find an intensity level and an activity that gives you that “What a feeling!” feeling.
9. Decreases risk of cognitive decline. Several studies have found a link between inactivity and higher risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. A regular workout program could be key for maintaining your memory throughout the years.
10. Improves sex drive. Workouts help get blood flowing to all parts of the body. Moderately vigorous workouts can raise testosterone levels in both men and women, which in turn helps them build muscle and gives them enhanced energy and sex drive.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend two hours and thirty minutes of moderate to intense physical activity (cardio) per week and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activity per week. If activity is more vigorous (running, for example), 75 minutes a week is enough. Other CDC recommendations include advice on how to fit in even 10 minutes of exercise at a time if necessary, spread across the days of the week.
Ageology physicians strongly recommend an hour of activity most days of the week, in order to optimize your fitness and health. Think of simple ways to increase activity throughout the day. For example, don’t sit more than you have to. Desk job? Look into a stand-up desk or sit and bounce on an exercise ball instead of an office chair. Walk or ride a bike instead of driving when possible and use stairs instead of the elevator.
The best bet for testosterone boosting through exercise is weight training at relatively high intensity with long rests between sets. For example, do three or more sets of each exercise, even if the sets include minimal repetitions; and take a day or two of rest in between strength training sessions. (If the last sentence may as well be Swahili for all you understood, consult with a personal trainer before you get started!)
Several studies indicate that exercise doesn’t have the desired impact on a person who is otherwise a couch potato. The key is to shift your life into a more active gear in general, not to go all-out in workouts and then lie around like a bump on a log the rest of the time.
Photo credit: Silvercross.org