THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISE

"Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far." - Thomas Jefferson

"A man's health can be judged by which he takes two at a time - pills or stairs." - Joan Welsh


If you want to improve your health, the advice is always the same:

* Change your eating habits

* Stop smoking

and

* Exercise more

On this site we look mostly at diet and nutrition, and everyone now knows that smoking is bad for you. But what about physical activity? Why is that so important? And how does it help keep you healthy?

EXERCISE AND HEALTH

Let’s start with some general comments.

We are designed to move! Our bodies are meant to be physically active.

In the past, people did a lot of physical labour and walked a lot. That kept their body structure in good condition.

Not any more. These days, may, many people spend most of the working day sitting down, and then go home to sit and watch TV!

Unless we make a specific effort to be physically active, our muscles lose tone and become weak and flabby. This in turn makes us stiff and inflexible, and we become more prone to injury.

Worse still, muscles like our heart and diaphragm (which powers our lungs) no longer work so well. That weakens the whole system even more.

And then, most of us carry on eating just as if we were doing hard physical work, and we take in many more calories that we need.

The bottom line is that we need to move, and move a lot to use up the extra fuel so that we don’t become overweight and obese (health hazards in themselves).

Some benefits of exercise

There is no doubt that a sustained programme of physical activity is essential for good health. Inactive people are much more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity than those who exercise for their whole lives.

Most of the cells of the body are renewed every few months. In fact it has been said that the adult human body is practically replaced every three months!

This means that there is a ‘new you’ every few months. This ‘new you’ could be stronger or weaker than the old one – it all depends on whether you take better care of yourself than before.

Keeping physically fit is one of the things that stimulate the cells of the body to grow and rejuvenate themselves. It even delays the ageing process and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, so there are good reasons to incorporate it into your life!

The diseases that are kept at bay by regular physical activity are the chronic degenerative diseases. They are disease that they develop slowly over time. So to prevent them, you have to take preventive measures over time, on an ongoing basis.

Once they have been caused by a lifetime of abusing the body, it is naïve to expect that they can be cured quickly and easily when they finally manifest their symptoms.

To see how importantly exercise is rated by Harvard university health scientists, check the basic food pyramid on our Nutrition and Food page.

What exercise does

Stamina, strength and muscle tone

Your body becomes stronger, more efficient and better looking as you become fitter. Your muscles, ligaments and bones are strengthened so your posture improves. Flexibility also improves, reducing the risk of stiffness, tension and injury.

Improved quality of life - Reduced stress

Exercise can prevent stress and depression. Exactly how is unclear, but there may be many factors involved, For example, there may be positive changes to the brain’s neurotransmitters. Positive changes in hormones that affect anxiety levels and mood (nor-epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin) have also been measured.

- Improved mood and mental well-being

The release of endorphins (naturally produced opiates) improves mood.

- Improved sleep patterns.

A lack of sleep is associated with many health problems.

- Slowing the ageing process

Most of our great fears of ageing stem from the idea that we lose our minds. Regular exercise improves blood flow to the brain and slows down the degeneration of the nervous system.

Reasoning and memory are sustained as are quicker reaction times and coordination.

In addition the reduction in muscle strength and size is slowed down, and balance and coordination improves, as does lung function.

Cardiovascular health

Exercise helps you to ...

o Strengthen your heart and therefore keep blood pressure normal.

o Reduce the risk of a heart attack. A 20-year study of 72 000 female nurses showed that daily 30 minute walks reduced the risk by 30-34%.

o Manage your cholesterol levels. The good high density lipoproteins (HDL) are raised while the bad low density lipoproteins (LDL) are lowered. This reduces the formation deposition of plaque on the artery walls which leads to blockage and heart attack.

o Lower the risk of having a stroke. A study of more than 11 000 men done at Harvard showed that regular brisk walking for 30 minutes a day can cut the risk of a stroke by 50%.

Weight control

By burning more calories than you eat you stop gaining weight, and even start losing the excess.

Maintaining a healthy body weight is essential if you want to avoid many serious diseases including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Diabetes and its complications

o Diabetes and obesity go hand in hand – exercise helps prevent both.

o Physical activity can reduce insulin requirements.

o A reduction in cholestrol levels and blood pressure is very important for diabetics for whom the risk of heart disease, stroke and circulatory problems is increased.

o It has been reported that by combining daily exercise, a lower fat intake and a weight reduction of 5-7% people at high risk for diabetes can reduce the risk by half.

Cancer

The Seattle Cancer Research Center reports that at least 35% of all cancer deaths are linked to lack of activity and excessive weight. This may be due to increased insulin levels, which promotes tumour growth.

Exercise increases the speed at which food passes through the colon. This in turn reduces the time that toxins that are present in the waste remain in the body, and so reduces the possibility that they might induce cancerous cells.

Physical activity reduces the levels of oestrogen in the circulation for women. Higher oestrogen levels are linked to the development fo breast and uterine cancers.

Many other benefits!

o Healthy pregnancies are more likely in women who are fit and who keep active (unless specific medical complications demand otherwise).

o Reduction in the incidence of osteoporosis – exercise together with adequate intake of calcium, magnesium and Vitaimn D.

o Prevention of colds – probably due to an improved immunity.

o Reduction in the severity of the symptoms of asthma (under expert advice).

o Reduction in the risk of needing gallstone surgery. Harvard university found a 20-31% reduction in a study of more than 60 000 women aged 40-65 years.

o Protection against hip fracture – probably due to stronger muscles and bones, greater flexibilty and better balance.

o Relief or arthritis and back pain.

Types of exercise

As you know, there are lots of options when it comes to keeping physically fit. We won’t discuss them all here – not even most of them. It really is a matter of choice – you need to find something that you enjoy sufficiently to do on a regular basis.

You will also find that your choices change over time as your capabilities and interests change. But never drop exercising – replace the thing you no longer want to do with something else that suits you better.

In our family we have had many forms of physical activity – walking, sailing, yoga, dancing, going to the gym and playing games like tennis.

There are two that we would like to highlight here: one that is very easy to incorporate into you day because it needs no equipment, and the other something that you may not have come across before.

Walking!

This is, of course the most natural form of exercise – you do it every day. It doesn’t need a prescription, and the chance of injuring yourself is low.

But you need to do enough to have it count as a physical work-out! Some suggest getting a pedometer, which counts the number of steps that you take, and say that 10 000 steps per day is what you need!

Another idea is to ensure that you walk at a brisk pace (starting slow and speeding up as you capacity increases) and aim at a 30 minute walk at least 5 days a week! This would be a goal to set yourself even if you have to start with less.

However, remember to check with your doctor before you embark on any new fitness regime.

A way to monitor yourself is as follows:

* Make sure that you are able to keep up a conversation while you walk. Increase you pace so that you can still talk without losing your breath. As time goes on and your fitness improves you will need to increase your pace – do not be too relaxed or breathe too lightly.

* Make opportunities to walk: Park a distance from the entrance of the mall, walk up steps rather than taking the elevator, walk around the neighbourhood taking the family or a friend with you, join a hiking club at the weekend. Be creative with your own ideas.

I read somewhere that if a daily fitness walk could be provided in the form of a pill it would be the most commonly prescribed medication because of all the health benefits that it provides! These include all those discussed earlier.

Rebounding

This may be new to you – it was to me until quite recently.

Rebounding is bouncing on a mini-trampoline. It is a safe and gentle, low-impact form of exercise that can be undertaken by people of any age and fitness level, and even pregnant women.

It can even be modified to suit anyone troubled by physical problems such as those recovering from accidents or surgery and the physically handicapped.

It’s easy on the joints and back, and can be done at your convenience at home, even while watching television! The good news is that if you do it for an equivalent time period, it burns more calories than jogging!

One of the major benefits afforded by this type of activity is that it promotes the movement of lymph (as well as venous blood flow). The role of lymphatic system is to rid the body of garbage.

Since the lymphatic system lacks a pump to push the fluid around, it depends upon muscular contractions brought about by movement of the body, massaging and gravitational forces. Therefore a sluggish body leads to a sluggish lymphatic system.

This is a major problem because the lymphatic system is the body’s major refuse removal system, responsible for getting rid of such things as toxins, dead or cancerous cells, nitrogenous wastes, pathogenic agents like bacteria and viruses, foreign substances including heavy metals, and other noxious material that accumulate in the body.

A stagnant lymphatic system leads to a host of unpleasant health issues from merely unpleasant (bad breath and body odour) to life-threatening like cancer.

Another benefit is improved respiration which leads to more oxygen in the tissues.

SUMMING UP

As human beings we are designed to be physically active and there is no doubt that a sustained programme of physical activity is essential for our good health.

If we fail to live according to that design, things can go horribly wrong. Inactive people are much more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity than those who exercise for their whole lives.

On the other hand, if we are just moderately active on a regular basis, we can make a huge difference to our ability to cope with the challenges of life, especially disease. As our cells are constantly being renewed, we can even rebuild ourselves as better, stronger people!

The diseases that are kept at bay by regular physical activity are the chronic degenerative diseases. They are diseases that develop slowly over time.

Once they have been caused by a lifetime of abusing the body, it is naïve to expect that they can be cured quickly and easily when they finally manifest their symptoms.

So we need to prevent them, by taking preventive action throughout our lives. That means taking regular exercise on an ongoing basis.

Exercise even delays the ageing process and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, so there are good reasons to incorporate it into your life!

And it can be enjoyable as well as beneficial. What’s not to like about it?