Exercise: more than just heart benefits

Exercise, more to the story
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

July 2005

Some exercise is fun, like riding a bike or playing basketball. For those of us who walk or work out in the gym almost every day the fun fades fast. Most individuals who begin an exercise program don't keep it up beyond about 6 months - or until next New Year's Day. That works out pretty well for the owners of fitness centers. If all their members showed up 3 or 4 times a week the place would be jammed!

In broad terms, aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and lungs, while resistance exercise makes muscles bigger and stronger. Our bodies evolved to do both. In order for our ancestors to survive they needed bodies that could carry them fast and far, that enabled them to defend themselves and to chase after food. Cars and planes eliminated the first requirement, civilization the second and supermarkets the third. It's no surprise that fully one-quarter of our population does no exercise of any kind and only a little more than 10 percent of Americans exercise as intensely for most of their lives as nature intended.

During the last half of the 20th century physicians concentrated on heart fitness, urging us to walk at least 30 minutes most days of the week. Those who do so lower their blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and delay osteoporosis. But there's more to the story.

When we add resistance exercise we gain even more benefits. Stronger, larger muscles not only make daily chores easier, they delay the frailty that most people think is inevitable among older persons. Among those past the age of 65, one-quarter cannot feed, bathe or dress themselves, or even get out of bed without assistance. In those over the age of 80, nearly half find it impossible to do these things.

Bone becomes stronger when it has to carry a heavier load. Among primitive people who have no labor-saving devices, those who arrive at the age of 70 or beyond do so without osteoporosis. That is true even in countries where the average calcium intake is much less than half that in the United States. Physical activity makes the difference.

Falls are exceedingly common in the elderly and roughly one-third of persons over the age of 65 will fall at least once in any given year. Although illness and medication share some of the blame, it's mostly because unused muscles waste away. Withered muscles not only lack strength, they lose the specialized nerve endings that help to maintain balance. Poor balance, weak muscles and thinning bones set the stage for falls and fractures. Hip fractures are the most dangerous. One-quarter of elderly persons who sustain a fractured hip do not survive more than one year.

Exercise also reduces the pain of arthritis, postpones the dementia of aging, improves immune function, and may help to ward off glaucoma.

It only takes a couple of weeks to reap the benefits of exercise, especially the mood elevation and increased energy that exercisers enjoy. Exercising several times a week means that you can eat more and enjoy some foods that you've been feeling guilty about. Think about that as you lace up your walking shoes tomorrow morning!

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