I have always said that one of the benefits of exercise is that it affects every cell in your body… in a good way. From head to toe, it seems that being active makes the body happy. Everything from helping the obvious like improving our heart health, to changing how our bodies use and store fat, and the less obvious like helping the neurons in our brain make more connections, potentially delaying diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In fact, when we look at the behaviors that most often lead to premature death in this country, we find that it’s pretty consistent. The most common behavior that leads to early death is tobacco use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 400,000 people die each year from tobacco use. But there are another set of behaviors that will likely outpace tobacco use as the most preventable cause of death in the U.S. Can you guess to which behaviors I am referring? If you guessed a poor diet and inactivity, you’d be right.
Is Exercise a Cure-All?
I do believe that exercise plays a very important role when it comes to maintaining and improving health. But whether it’s a truly a “cure-all” is another story. I did read the Time Magazine article that states that exercise works like a miracle drug. I think the article’s title is slightly misleading. Often when we see the word “cure,” our brain typically jumps to diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, even HIV/AIDS – those conditions for which there is no medical cure. Let me be clear: there are treatments, but no cures. In these cases, unfortunately, exercise is not the magical prescription that will cure us.
But, when we think about other lifestyle-related issues, like obesity for example, exercise may be just what the doctor ordered. A number of studies (too many to even mention) have found that exercise, when performed consistently for years and years, helps people stay trim. In fact, for those folks that have lost more than 30 lbs. (13 kg) and kept that weight off for 2 years or more, regular exercise was determined to be the most important factor for their success. These data are according to the National Weight Control Registry. Same goes for those in the early stages of osteoporosis (where the person’s bones start to become really brittle and fragile). Exercise helps to reverse that process. This is because exercise puts some pressure on the skeleton, which actually makes it stronger.
Is It Good to Exercise While You Have the Flu or a Cold?
What about for conditions like the flu or common cold? Some studies have shown that if you start to exercise when you begin feeling better, even though you may still have symptoms, that you may recover faster. Personally, I have found this doesn’t work so well for me. I have tried incorporating some light exercise when recovering from a cold or the flu, and it’s made me feel much worse. So, just be careful and listen to your body.
Exercise and its Effects on the Immune System
Now that I’m on the topic of our immune system, I do want to mention exercise’s influence on the immune system in general. Put simply, our immune system is our body’s defense against potentially harmful bugs, germs, pathogens… whatever you like to call them. So, we want our immune system to stay strong especially as we get older. A number of studies have found that exercise helps our immune systems stay lean and mean especially as we age. But there is a catch to this. The type of exercise seems to matter. Overexerting yourself day after day can weaken your immune system. Basically, when you continue to push yourself to the limit day after day, it’s like your immune system has to spend all of its time and energy repairing those muscles. It doesn’t get the opportunity to fight off other viruses and bacteria that may make you sick. I’m not saying you should never push yourself when you exercise. What I’m talking about here is day after day, you go all out at the gym and don’t allow for any rest days in between. In fact, it’s definitely worthwhile to push yourself – researchers are discovering that high intensity training can actually make our immune systems better at fighting off bacteria and viruses. But if you don’t throw in some rest days in between, your immune system may just quit on you.
How Much Exercise Do We Really Need to be Doing?
Many U.S. health agencies say the goal is every week, aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity. Basically, this translates to about 30 minutes of walking at least 5 days per week. But walking isn’t the only way to meet this goal. Doing chores around the house, like vacuuming and dusting, count towards your 150 minutes for the week. So, just like the article in Time Magazine said, you don’t have to be a gym rat to get in your daily exercise. Just aim to get your heart rate up and go from there.
Does Exercise Prevent Cancer or Cure Cancer?
There seems to be a trend for how much exercise we need to do to potentially ward of cancer. Again, this is not a cure, and some of these studies do have some research design flaws. But something to keep in mind: there seems to be a consensus (for now) on how much exercise we need to be doing in order to potentially reduce your risk for cancer later in life. The trick is to get 60 minutes of vigorous intensity activity 5-7 days a week. That's a lot of activity, and vigorous activity means running or swimming–things that really get your heart rate up, where you know you're working hard. I talked about a talk test in the podcast. If you have a hard time talking when you're exercising, you're working out pretty hard. That's basically vigorous intensity exercise. What they're finding is that 60 minutes of vigorous intensity activity 5-7 days a week may help ward off cancer. If I were you, I would probably stick to more like 5-6 days a week. Keep that 7th day as your rest day, so you don't push your immune system to the point where you're more likely to get sick.