The benefits of exercise have been promoted for years as a way to lower unhealthy cholesterol, lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke and to also help control blood sugar levels. While exercise may do more than trim your waist, there are some inherent benefits to exercise that go much deeper than a list of disease prevention. A recent study by PLoS Medicine concludes that 150 minutes per week of exercise adds 3.4 years to the average lifespan. However, only 50 percent of American adults get at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week. While many are registered as healthy: 65 percent aren’t obese, 65 percent get at least seven hours of sleep and 83 percent don’t smoke, they are missing out on a few critical benefits of exercise that lead to healthier and happier lives.
The Heart of the Matter
The first thing the nurse does in an intensive care unit is turn off the EKG monitor because the heart can go on writing across the screen, and sometimes it still pumps blood after the body stops. The heart is the strongest organ, a continuously pumping machine, and it need the limits to be tested frequently through exercise. While the body as a whole is assisted by exercise, the heart and blood vessels are helped the most. Bad cholesterol known as LDL and triglycerides decrease while HDL (the good cholesterol) increases. Exercise also lowers blood pressure and makes the body more sensitive to insulin, which lowers blood glucose. It prevents platelets from clotting and leading to strokes or heart attacks. It also reduces the markers of body-wide inflammation and slows calcium in the artery walls. People who exercise frequently also have a lower resting heart rate.
In fact, exercise is so important for the heart as an organ that the risk of cardiovascular death is half of someone who doesn’t exercise at all, according to an analysis from studies in the United States, Europe and Taiwan. The mortality rate in this study bottoms out with nine hours of moderate exercise or 4.8 hours of vigorous exercise.
Brains over Bronze
Although many take to the gym to improve their appearance, scientists have proven that the runner’s high and yogi’s buzz have profound effects on the brain. The brain structure of the hippocampus is proven to grow as people get more fit, and because the hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems, cardiovascular fitness has improved memory-boosting effects. Executive control also improves. Research shows that physical activity enhances cognitive functions, specifically executive functions in late middle-aged individuals with significant improvement when assessing cognitive flexibility.
Workouts do not need to be extreme to help brain health as 30-45 minutes of brisk walking, three times a week, has been proven to delay the onset of dementia. Research has also proven that the level of tau, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s, fell in those who exercised vigorously.
Diabetes, Cancer & Osteoporosis … Oh My
There are many other diseases you can prevent through exercise. The evidence is staggering with the risk of diabetes lowered by 30%, colon cancer risk reduced by 24% in men, and lung cancer risk reduced by 20%. Exercise also helps to slow bone loss and keep joint cartilage healthy. As Michael J. Blaha, a preventative cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital says, “It’s really hard to find something that is not improved with exercise. Everyone can benefit from it. Even at a higher age, when you’re at increased risk of dying, exercise is able to add time to your life.”
In addition to health benefits, exercise makes you happier. The “runner’s high” is a rush of feel-good hormones known as endocannabinoids. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise published a study that found 30 minutes of walking on a treadmill lifted the moods of someone who suffers from a major depressive order. Another study by the Journal of Adolescent Health proved that 30 minutes of running during the week boosted sleep quality, mood and concentration. In fact, athletes often refer to sports as a “drug” because it causes the neurochemical adaptation in the brain to reward pathways shared by addictive drugs.
While researchers continue to study the long term benefits of running, there continues to be evidence that exercise adds years to your life – and makes you happier while living longer.