Exercise adds quality years

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

July 2007

"Sure, exercise helps you to live longer, but only by the number of hours that you exercise" is the couch potato's response when a well-meaning friend urges him to get moving. That funny but flippant comment overlooks a critical fact: exercise enhances the quality of life, not just its length.

The average lifespan in the United States is 77.6 years, almost double what is was in 1900. Not many couch potatoes make it that far and most of those that do are carrying a lot of medical baggage. It's a sad fact that the last 10 percent of those 77-plus years are not so pleasant. The typical oldster spends his or her final years battling chronic diseases such as congestive heart failure, type 2 diabetes, the aftermath of stroke or the ravages of cancer.

Is that what nature intended for us? The six leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lung disease, accidents and diabetes. Except for accidents, the others either didn't exist a mere century ago — at least in their modern form — or they were very uncommon. What most persons don't realize is that it only takes a few minor adjustments in diet and lifestyle to avoid these problems until the end of a very long life.

Data from the Framingham study in which scientists kept track of more than 4,000 persons for more than 40 years showed that a half-hour brisk walk every day added an average 3.5 years to a participant's life. But is that all?

It's extremely unlikely that a lifelong daily walker will have excess body fat. That drastically reduces coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

The Framingham exercisers probably had some other good behavior patterns such as avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol, limiting sweet and fatty foods and getting a reasonable amount of fruits and vegetables on a consistent basis. None of these habits would qualify them as health nuts but they would help them to have fewer cancers, strokes and heart attacks.

Is it worth getting to 77.6 years (81 years for U.S. women) with a healthy heart but a mushy brain? If worrying about senile dementia or Alzheimer's disease keeps you up at night, you should know that exercise and all the other healthy habits I mentioned go a long way toward avoiding what most of us fear as we get older, namely becoming memory-deficient, incontinent, helpless shells of our youthful selves. Heart disease and hardened arteries limit how much oxygen reaches our brain cells, so some of them simply die. The high blood sugar that is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes keeps what left of the brain from working at full power. Do you need any more reasons to get out there and walk?

Michelangelo died at 89, Sophocles at 90 and Isaac Newton at 84. When they finally departed it was after a relatively brief decline, what scientists refer to as a compression of morbidity. We can't postpone dying forever but we can make the transition from good health, well-being and robust activity a short one.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.