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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Exercise

Exercise is a big part of my life. I run marathons, which is, yes, a bit extreme.

Exercise is considered any movement that makes the muscles work and burns calories. When we don’t use our muscles, they turn into fat. Muscles work, and fat sits there. Trust me; I’m a doctor, and every single day in my office I observe that people do indeed age differently, and that much of that depends on their level of activity. Some form of regular exercise is necessary for good health. It is NOT optional.

Many people have physical limitations, preventing them from participating in certain activities. It is fortunate that exercise can take a wide variety of forms, including walking, swimming, running, jogging, dancing, yoga, Pilates, bicycling, hiking, calisthenics, stair climbing, and many other gym activities or movements. The simplest of these is walking, an activity that most of us do already. Exercise does not have to involve speed, rigor or a paid gym membership.

What does exercise do for us?

  • Exercise can make us feel happier. Need an emotional lift? Need to de-stress after a demanding day? A brisk walk or a visit to the gym can help to improve mood and to decrease feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. It can increase brain sensitivity to serotonin and norepinephrine, hormones which relieve feelings of depression. Exercise can increase the production of endorphins, which help to produce positive feelings. These effects likely exist regardless of the level of intensity of the workout.

  • Exercise will help to lose weight. Our bodies expend energy by digesting food, exercising, and maintaining body functions like heartbeat, breathing, and the activity of all working cells. When we diet, the reduced calorie intake lowers the metabolic rate, which can actually cause a temporary delay in weight loss. However, with regular exercise, our metabolic rate is increased, so we burn calories at a higher rate. This occurs both while we are exercising, and afterwards as well. Conversely, inactivity is a major factor in weight gain.

  • Exercise helps to build and maintain muscles by releasing hormones that enable them to absorb amino acids. This helps muscles grow, and reduces breakdown. As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass and function, which can lead to an increased risk of injury. Regular physical activity is essential in order to slow muscle loss and maintain strength. It also builds bone density when we are young, and helps to maintain it later on.

  • Exercise can increase our energy level. Aerobic exercise boosts the cardiovascular system and improves lung function. Moving more causes the heart to pump more blood, delivering more oxygen to our muscles. Regular exercise makes our heart, and therefore our muscles, more efficient. Over time, less energy is required to perform the same activities. This makes us less likely to become short of breath, even for those with chronic or terminal diseases.

  • Exercise can reduce the risk of chronic disease. It improves insulin sensitivity, heart health, and body composition. It can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes, and helps those with type 1 diabetes. It can reduce the risk of a number of cancers. Regular exercise can increase HDL (good cholesterol), while maintaining or reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol. Regular aerobic exercise can lower blood pressure. A lack of exercise can, in contrast, lead to significant increases in belly fat, which increases the risk for diabetes and heart disease.

  • Exercise helps the skin by facilitating the production of antioxidants, which repair skin damage.

  • Exercise is good for brain health and memory. It increases our heart rate, which promotes the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. It can stimulate hormones that enhance the growth of brain cells. It has been shown to cause the hippocampus to grow in size, which may help to improve mental function as we grow older. It may be protective against conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, although more research is needed to prove this.

  • Exercise improves sleep quality and can help with relaxation. The energy loss that occurs during exercise stimulates restorative processes during sleep. The increase in body temperature that occurs during exercise is thought to improve sleep quality by helping our body temperature to drop when we sleep. Some studies show that regular exercise helps us to fall asleep more quickly.

  • Exercise can reduce pain. For many years, the treatment for chronic pain has been rest. Studies now show that many different conditions (including low back pain, fibromyalgia and soft tissue injuries) can actually be helped by regular exercise. Exercise has been shown to raise pain tolerance and to decrease pain perception.

  • Finally, exercise can promote a better sex life and boost sex drive, because it strengthens the heart, improves blood circulation, tones muscles, and enhances flexibility. Several studies confirm that regular exercise improves erectile function in men.

What’s the best kind of exercise? It is the kind that you will actually do, and stick with. Please consider that exercise can be fun. Find the type that you enjoy, whether it is outdoors, or in the gym. Get to know other people who enjoy doing what you do. Be sociable, and allow your physical activity to connect you to family and friends. Think dance class, water aerobics, or a hike; join a soccer team or a mixed softball league.

It is so clear that exercise can improve nearly every aspect of our health, both physically and emotionally. It takes minimal movement to make a difference. A goal for a week might start at 90 minutes (30 minutes three times per week) of moderate activity. I urge you to begin today in order to feel better, have more energy, and possibly add years to your life. Any amount of activity is better than none at all.

Please check with your doctor when starting something new, especially if you have any concerns about your fitness, haven't exercised in a long time, or have chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes or arthritis.

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