By Dr. Christopher Thomas
Most adults do not get enough physical exercise. Sedentary adults see their risks of disease increase as much as smokers do. Regular exercise is key to a better health and quality of life: It can indeed increase life span by 3 to 5 years. Importantly, the benefits one may get from a healthy diet and good stress management may be lost without regular physical activity as well. Here is how exercise helps us live better:
Exercise burns calories
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to help a) control weight, b) decrease abdominal fat levels, and c) increase muscle to fat ratio. This is because exercise helps burn calories that would otherwise be kept as fat in the body.
The value of exercise goes beyond fat burning: it helps slow down aging.
Exercise is anti-aging
Many factors induce aging and diseases: diabetes, heart disease, depression, dementia, cancer, osteoporosis, etc. Regular physical activity has an effect on several of these factors. For instance, it diminishes the effects of free radicals, inflammation and stress. It also reduces cholesterol, glucose and blood pressure levels. Finally, exercise impacts the production of hormones that play a role in aging. It increases the anti-aging hormones (growth hormones, testosterone and DHEA) and decreases blood insulin levels.
Exercise increases reserve
Regular exercise can also result in increasing the body’s natural defenses. This happens when one increasingly challenges one’s body by raising the level of difficulty of an exercise program. As the difficulty increases, the body adapts to the requests, which we call “getting fit”. For instance, if you walk on a regular basis, your heart and blood vessel system will become overloaded and will have to adapt, that is will increase its capacity. As a consequence you will be able to walk with less effort. Of note, regular exercise can also improve the body’s repair and regeneration mechanisms that protect against future damage during exercise.
Exercise is protective
Increases in physical activity and functional capacity are increasingly useful as we get older:
1. Muscles that are regularly challenged (by a resistance training program for instance) will grow and become stronger. This can help maintain quality of life as we get older.
2. Strength training can also increase bone strength, which reduces fracture risks during a fall.
3. Becoming fit results in increased antioxidant levels, helping build lower oxidative stress in the long-term.
4. Being fit also makes us think better. Exercise stimulates the growth and development of brain cells. This in turns increases our ability to learn and memorize. It also helps reduce risks of cognitive decline and diseases.
Overall, increased levels of endurance, strength and balance raise the threshold for disability and dependence as we age.
- This post was written by Professor Christopher Thomas, a physician and a scientist whose work links the complex disciplines of biochemistry and biology to the real needs of real people. His research laboratory is situated at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne. Dr Thomas is an expert contributor at slowagingblog.com and author of Fast Living, Slow Ageing.