“Exercise is good for you!”

“Exercise is good for you.”  How many times have you heard this phrase?  It has been said so often that it rivals similar health mantras in frequency such as “Eat your vegetables”, “Stop smoking!” and “Take your vitamins” (the last one hopefully I disproved the value of in an earlier post!).  Yet, we seldom ask for explanations about why these recommendations are supposed to form the foundation of our habits.  This post will review the reasons we talk about exercise and health, specifically discussing benefits that go beyond the widely known effects of lowering the rate of heart disease.  Hopefully, after reading this you will feel even more committed to your current exercise regimen or will feel encouraged to start exercising if you are not currently doing so.

To begin with, let’s define the current recommendations you will hear from doctors and health care organizations regarding the amount of exercise to do weekly.  The two most common suggestions are to get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity weekly.  Moderate intensity is considered activities that make you breathe as hard as if you were taking a brisk walk.  In fact, a brisk walk is the most common moderate intensity activity people perform.  Strenuous activity would be one that makes your heart beat faster, makes you breathe heavier and sweat more.

Now that we are on the same page about the amount of exercise recommended, let’s turn our attention to the health benefits.

#1 Cancer:   Colon cancer is the second most common cancer in men and women.  According to the National Cancer Institute, there are over 50 studies to date evaluating physical activity and colon cancer risk.  The results are consistent that people who consistently participate in physical activity reduce their risk of developing colon cancer by 30-40% compared to those who do not exercise.  This benefit applies to those of normal weight, as well as those who are overweight or obese.

Breast cancer has been studied extensively as well.  The results of over 60 studies have shown consistent decreases in breast cancer risk for all levels exercise intensity.  This protective benefit applies to premenopausal and postmenopausal women.  Equally important is that some studies suggest a survival benefit for those women with breast cancer who exercise frequently.

There are similar results showing physical activity lowering rates of endometrial cancer, possibly lung cancer (although smoking cessation remains the most important intervention to lower risk), and slowing of progression of prostate cancer in men.

#2 Sleep quality:  In the United States, 35-40% of adults have difficulty falling asleep or feeling tired during the day.  A 2011 study in the Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity by Paul Loprinzi and Bradley Cardinal found a 65% improvement in sleep quality in people exercising moderately compared to those who were sedentary.  This finding supports the idea that exercise is a healthier option for those with insomnia compared to sleep medicines that have multiple potential side effects.

#3 Decreased falls and bone fractures:  A meta-analysis (pooling together results from multiple individual high-quality studies) published in 2014 of 22 studies that in total included over 1.2 million people was conducted by Qu, et al.  The results found a 39% and 28% reduction in hip and wrist fractures, respectively, in those who exercise consistently compared to those who do not.  Fractures of the spine (vertebral fractures) did not show any reduction with exercise.

#4 Emotional Well-Being:  Another meta-analysis of 30 prospective studies published by Mammen and Faulkner in American Journal of Preventive Medicine found 25 of the 30 showing a lower risk of developing depression in people who exercised moderately.

#5 Life expectancy:  The National Institute of Health in 2012 found a direct relationship between the amount of exercise and prolonging your life.  For people doing half the recommended level of exercise weekly, the recommended level, and twice the recommended level, the gain in years of life averaged 1.8, 3.4, and 4.2 years.  This increase applied to men, women, African-Americans, Caucasians, and the increase was even more pronounced for those with a history of heart disease or cancer.

So now you know the specifics about physical activity and your health.   Whether you are concerned about heart disease, cancer, bone health, emotional well-being, sleep or simply want to live as long as possible, exercise should be a fundamental part of your life.  Hope to see you soon on the walking trails, biking trails or in the gym!

Next week’s post:  Benefits of high-intensity interval training

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Author: mdpoet

Physician and poet living in North Carolina.

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