This is part of our ongoing The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging spotlight. Each day, we will be posting some of the great information that’s packed into our book, The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging.
Exercise, Health and Longevity
The research is clear: Regular exercise extends human life. Among the data confirming this observation are the results of the Harvard Alumni Health Study.1 Over the 15 years during which these 13,486 men were studied, age at death was increased significantly in proportion to the distance walked daily, the number of stories of stairs climbed daily and the amount of vigorous physical exercise that was included in each day’s activities. Another study of 19,223 initially healthy men found that cardiorespiratory fitness reduced both the incidence of premature death and the incidence of death from cardiovascular disease by 54%.2
The close relationship between physical activity and life extension was confirmed by the 24-year prospective Nurses’ Health Study.3 Among these 116,564 women in the US, increasing the amount of routine physical activity performed daily decreased the chances of dying prematurely, with the decrease first appearing when regular physical activity exceeds 3.5 hours per week. These investigators estimated that the combination of smoking cessation, maintaining BMI below 26 and participation in regular physical activity in excess of 3.5 hours per week could prevent 31% of all premature deaths.
One group of investigators concluded that increasing the amount of routine physical activity can reduce the risk for premature death by about one quarter.4 Another group estimated that “at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week” can reduce the risk of premature death by about one-third.5
Among a 69,693-woman subset of the Nurses’ Health Study, the likelihood of suffering a heart attack was doubled in women who habitually failed to exercise at least twice weekly, while 4 or more hours of exercise a week cut the risk of dying from a heart attack in half.6 The cardioprotective properties of regular habitual exercise also are apparent in men; in the 12-year prospective Physicians’ Health Study, the chances of dying from a heart attack were reduced by 85% in men who habitually exercised at least 5 times weekly.7 The data collected during that study indicate that simply running for one hour per week or lifting weights for 30 minutes once a week reduces the chances of developing heart disease.8 Similarly in the US, the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study of 73,743 postmenopausal women observed a 20% decrease in the incidence of cardiovascular disease among women who exercised routinely.9 Other scientists have concluded that, on average, the likelihood of dying from heart disease is about 90% greater in sedentary adults than in those who are physically active.10
The author of a comprehensive examination of the health benefits of physical activity, published recently in Australian Family Physician concluded that a 40-minute session of resistance exercise, only once or twice a week (but at least 48 hours apart to allow for maximum muscle recovery and growth) will increase strength and neuromuscular coordination in older men and women.11 Greater strength and coordination will improve mobility and will make stumbling and falling – and breaking bones – less likely. The risk of fractures is exceedingly high with advancing age. Weight-bearing exercise is critical for retaining healthy bone density and strengthening bone matrix. Healthier bones lead to a decreased risk of osteoporotic bone fractures.
Regular Exercise Reduces Systemic Inflammation
Exercise also contributes to the health of the entire body – even those “parts” not involved in the exercise itself. Scientific evidence presented in an article published recently in the Journal of Applied Physiology demonstrates that because exercise increases the secretion of the anti-inflammatory cytokine, interleukin-6 (IL-6), by muscle cells into the blood stream, and IL-6 inhibits the secretion of the pro-inflammatory cytokine, tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a) throughout the body, regular participation in physical activity will decrease the level of disease-causing inflammation throughout the body.12
Regular Exercise Reduces Cancer Risk
Several specific examples of the positive benefits of regular exercise on inflammation and the immune system are obvious. The scientific evidence is consistent: the enormous amount of data collected from the 51,529 men who participated in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and the 121,701 women who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study confirm that regular participation in physical activity cuts the chances of developing cancer of the colon or pancreas by half.13-15 In its 2006 “white paper,” published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the American Society of Clinical Oncology concluded that regular exercise decreases the chances that a women will develop breast cancer and decreases the chances that a breast cancer survivor will suffer a recurrence.16
According to the results of a recently published study, participation in regular physical activity has been proven to slow down the rate at which existing prostate cancer worsens.17 Women benefit, too – research published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one hour of regular physical activity daily increases the survival of women with breast cancer.18 Further research demonstrates that one hour of regular physical activity daily increases the quality of life and decreases fatigue in breast cancer survivors.19
Regular Exercise Reduces ALL Disease Risk
The author of a comprehensive examination of the health benefits of physical activity concluded that “there is irrefutable evidence of the effectiveness of regular physical activity in the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity, depression, osteoporosis and premature death.”20 The greater the increase in physical fitness, the greater the reduction in the risk of premature death. Overall, doubling the exercise capacity of an individual reduces the risk of premature death by about 50%.
Regular Exercise Enhances the Quality of Old Age
One of the greatest fears of adults is reaching old age in a debilitated, dysfunctional condition – riddled with disease and on multiple medications. Aging this way is not necessary — by slowing down the march to diseases and debilitating conditions, doubling your musculoskeletal fitness can delay the onset of loss of functional independence by 10 to 30 years.20 Exercise significantly enhances quality of life and overall productivity.
Regular Exercise as a Key to Weight Management
Exercising on a consistent basis (along with healthy dietary practices) enhances our ability to maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese is a major factor in developing several chronic diseases. Maintaining a healthy body weight reduces our risk of developing those same diseases by reducing overall inflammation in the body.
By being overweight, we put ourselves at increased risk of diseases and conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, respiratory disease, sleep issues, asthma, digestive disorders, liver problems, joint conditions and arthritis, and several types of cancer.21 Cancers of the stomach, colon, rectum, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, prostate, kidneys, breast and reproductive organs are all more common in individuals who are overweight.22
Establishing a regimen of regular, routine exercise can help us ensure that we burn off the excess calories we get from our diets. By helping us reach a body weight that is healthy, exercise wards off diseases and lays the foundation for health. By exercising regularly, we can all more fully experience the wonders of life in a healthier and more active state for much, much longer.
Top Tips for Longevity Enhancement through Exercise
- Get Some! It doesn’t matter so much whether you walk, run, lift weights or whatever – just get moving!
- Stretch before starting and after finishing – reward your muscles for their hard work.
- Start slowly and build up speed and intensity only gradually – your engines need to warm up for best performance.
- Between 30 and 60 minutes a day, 5 or 6 days a week, is ideal for movement activities.
- If you are uncertain about how to do something, ask a pro – only if done correctly can activities benefit you.
- If you experience unusual pain, stop! Pain is nature’s way of telling you something may be wrong. Check in with a medical professional.
- If something is hurting, don’t push it. It will heal but you must give it time to do so. Don’t be afraid to take off a few days with alternative activities. (Twist an ankle? Do arm lifts while you sit with good posture.)
- To help your muscles work better, recover more quickly and grow bigger and stronger, feed them high-quality protein and plenty of antioxidants.
- To keep your muscles well-fed, ensure you are maintaining healthy circulation. • Make sure to get enough sleep. Sleep helps the body recover by providing it critically important down time.
- If you’re not exercising now, check with your physician first about how to start.
Next Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging topic:
Healthy Digestion: The Key to a Healthy You
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2. Katzmarzyk PT, Church TS, Blair SN. Cardiorespiratory fitness attenuates the effects of the metabolic syndrome on all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality in men. Arch Intern Med 2004;164:1092-1097.
3. Hu FB, Willett WC, Li T, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA, Manson JAE. Adiposity as compared with physical activity in predicting mortality among women. N Engl J Med 2004;351:2694-2703.
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18. Holmes MD, Chen WY, Feskanich D, Kroenke CH, Colditz GA.. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. JAMA 2005;293:2479-2486.
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20. Warburton DE, Nicol CW, Bredin SS. Health benefits of physical activity: The evidence. CMAJ 2006;174:801-809.
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