The benefits of exercise in disease prevention
A regular exercise regimen goes hand in hand with a healthy diet to maintain health and reach our ideal body weight for our given age, genetic or disease disposition. The benefits of exercise have been extensively studied and it is apparent that being fit is the key to staying young and preventing disease.
Exercise is so paramount to survival of our human bodies, that some recent research speculates that our genes evolved during stone age times when quite literally ‘survival of the fittest’ meant that those who were sedentary, died while those who were fit, survived to reproduce and pass on the ‘fitter’ genes. These researchers believe that the current sedentary culture has made these genes maladaptive, which has led to the development of chronic diseases.
Indeed, inactivity is a major risk factor for developing many chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes type 2. Studies show that people who exercise regularly have a 45% lower risk for heart disease than those who are sedentary, with moderate exercise being beneficial in people with existing heart disease. Exercise has a multitude of benefits on the heart and circulation including; improving cholesterol and lipid levels; reducing plaque and inflammation build up in the arteries; keeping the arteries more elastic (Sedentary people have a 35% greater risk of developing hypertension than athletes do); strengthening the heart, allowing it to pump more blood through the body and to sustain its maximum level with less strain (the resting heart rate of those who exercise is slower because less effort is needed to pump the blood) leading to less force being exerted on your arteries ; and reducing body weight, which can be the main incentive for taking up exercise for many people.
As well as looking leaner, regulating your body weight also reduces your risk of obesity and of developing type 2 diabetes, a modern scourge that is reaching near epidemic proportions with at least 171 million people worldwide have diabetes type 1 and 2, according to the World Health Organization. Studies have shown that adults who exercise have a 58% lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes even if they exercise for as little as 2.5 hours a week, and that the risk is reduced in overweight people who exercise, even if they don t lose weight.
Muscles use up sugar during exercise, reducing blood sugar levels, which lasts longer the more strenuous the exercise. Exercise also increases insulin sensitivity, making it more effective at escorting sugar into your cells, an important factor for diabetes type 2 sufferers whose insulin becomes insensitive to sugar, and inadequate at regulating blood sugar levels.
Exercise can have profound protective and healing effects on arthritis with many patients reporting less disability and pain than those who are inactive. Joints need motion to stay healthy, and inactivity causes the joint to become stiff and the surrounding tissue to atropy, or shrink.
Strengthening exercises builds muscle strength and ‘range of motion’ exercises such as yoga and tai chi increase the amount of movement in a joint and muscle. Low impact aerobic work outs such as cycling, swimming and walking can also stablilise and support joints.
Exercise also protects against osteoporosis (a disease of the bones that leads to reduction in bone mass and bone density) with strength training and weight training exercises, and walking, being effective in preserving bone mass and possibly even increasing bone density. Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of cancers of the colon, prostrate, uterine lining (endometrium) and breast.
Possible mechanisms for reducing these cancers include; helping digested food move through the colon more quickly (and reducing exposure to cancer causing substances) thus reducing colon cancer and ;reducing breast and endometrial cancer by reducing body fat and decreasing estrogen production which is implicated in these cancers.
Exercise is also one of most effective ways to overcome depression, activating and synchronizing the neuro transmitters serotonin and noradrenaline (chemicals used by your nerve cells to communicate with one another) which are associated with avoiding depression. Exercising also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that produce feelings of happiness and well being (hence the ‘runner’s high’) and provide natural pain relief in our bodies.
Thus, if you are stressed or depressed, exercise is your best remedy, with these natural neurotransmitters being more effective than many synthetic anti depressant or anxiety prescribed drugs.
With all the benefits of exercise, including lowering our risk of developing dementia in old age, it is not a matter of choice but of necessity that we should all include some exercise in our daily lives, if we are to maintain our health and sanity. This is especially true if we are more pre disposed to developing chronic diseases. If you are already suffering from a chronic disease, then you should consult your doctor before you take up any strenuous exercise, but do so soon, so you can start to improve and possibly prolong your life.
A 2001 study reported that older people who regularly exercised had lower rates of mental deterioration, Alzheimer s, and dementia of any type. Aerobic exercise is linked with improved mental vigor, in all people, including reaction time, acuity, and math skills. Exercising may even enhance creativity and imagination. According to one study, older people who are physically fit respond to mental challenges just as quickly as unfit young adults.
Another study found that walking regularly protects women from mental decline, and in fact, the more they walked per week, the more protection they enjoyed. (Stretching and weight training appear to have no such effects.) A 2004 study showed that exercise can reverse a high-fat diets harmful effects on neurologic function.
People with existing neurologic diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons disease, and Alzheimers disease, should be encouraged to exercise. Specialized exercise programs that improve mobility are particularly valuable for Parkinson s patients. Patients with neurological disorders who exercise experience less spasticity as well as reduction in, and even reversal of, muscle atrophy. In addition, the psychological benefits of exercise are extremely important in managing these disorders. Exercise machines, aquatic exercises, and walking are particularly useful.
Dr. May El Meleigy holds a Ph.D in Immunology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as well as an MSc. (Toxicology/pathology) and a B.Sc in pharmacology) from London University. El Meleigy is a freelance medical/health writer and is currently producing Health Education programs for Egyptian TV.