The Disease Prevention
Research shows that exercise may be the best strategy there is to ward off many serious—and common—chronic health problems. Yet few people make the time to take advantage of the power of exercise. Find the motivation by reading about its many benefits and ways to make it feel like fun.
Many studies have shown that exercise, compared to a sedentary lifestyle, boosts your quality of life and your health. Exercise can help you ward off the leading causes of disability and death: arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and lung illnesses, among others. Its effects are so strong that the “Global Burden of Disease” study ranked inactivity as the fifth leading cause of disease in western Europe. Inactivity is one disease risk factor that you have the power to do something about.
Consider type 2 diabetes, for example. We often hear that diabetes is becoming an epidemic. It affects nearly 10 percent of Americans. Now consider that physical activity is a key element in both preventing and managing it. A regular program of aerobic and resistance training—two of the three most important forms of exercise—helps improve blood sugar control. In addition to helping prevent or delay type 2 diabetes, exercise also has a positive effect on blood pressure, cholesterol and heart health—problems in all three areas are related to diabetes. One study found that following a structured exercise program and losing a modest amount of weight can lower the chance of getting type 2 diabetes by over 50 percent for people in high-risk groups.
Among other health problems, there’s also evidence that physical activity can influence the incidence of breast cancer and breast cancer outcomes in positive ways. Specific studies are underway to learn just how much exercise helps, but in the meantime, experts say that increasing or maintaining a moderate level of physical activity, along with losing weight if you’re overweight, is a good idea.
These are just two of the serious diseases that are impacted by exercise. That’s why you might hear the advice to exercise from your healthcare provider. Many are telling their patients about these benefits and encouraging physical activity, but still less than half of American adults are hearing this message. So while it’s important to get the okay from your primary or physician’s assistant before you start or intensify a fitness program, you may need to be the one to bring up the topic.
A recent British study suggests that becoming physically active in middle age, even if you’ve been sedentary for years, will substantially reduce the likelihood of becoming seriously ill or disabled in your golden years. Even moderate exercise is helpful, and you don’t have to go to a gym to do it. Doing everyday activities counts, from gardening and washing your car to walking or dancing, according to researchers from University College London. (Photo:I-stock)
An earlier Swedish study that followed more than 2,000 men for 35 years found that those who stepped up the pace of exercise after age 50 were far more likely to live longer and live better than those who stayed sedentary. So don’t let the number of candles on your birthday cake stand in your way.
Older adults may be concerned about hurting themselves or worsening an existing condition. But research has found that exercise can keep you independent longer and reduce disability by maintaining muscle mass and strength. With the right doctor-guided program, medical conditions can improve. Exercise will help you enjoy a longer life with less pain from diseases like arthritis.
According to a report in the Canadian Journal of Medicine, the most significant health benefits kick in when your exercise output is enough to burn about 1,000 calories a week—that’s roughly the equivalent of walking for one hour on five days of each week.
As good as it is, walking is just one of the important types of exercise. As you get more active, make it a goal to include all these in your weekly plan:
- Aerobic exercise
- Resistance training
- Stretching and flexibility exercises
- Balance exercises
Each type serves a different purpose. Some exercise disciplines include more than one. For instance, Pilates is a great way to build muscle and increase flexibility and balance. Tai chi and yoga help with balance, flexibility, breathing and relaxation and have the added bonus of helping you manage stress.
Here are the specifics:
Aerobic exercise is also called “cardio” because it works (and benefits) your cardiovascular system, boosting heart health. U.S. guidelines state that each week you should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or mix of the two, such as 100 minutes of moderate and 25 minutes of vigorous. (photo by I-stock)
What’s the difference? With moderate-intensity activity you can still carry on a conversation (but shouldn’t be able to sing); with vigorous-intensity activity, you should be able to say only a few words before needing to stop to take a breath.
Examples of moderate-intensity exercise:
- Brisk walking at about 3 mph
- Water aerobics
- Cycling under 10 mph
- Doubles tennis
- Light gardening
Examples of vigorous-intensity exercise:
- Race walking, running or walking uphill
- Swimming laps
- Cycling at 10 mph or faster
- Singles tennis
- Aerobic dancing
- Jumping rope
- Heavy continuous gardening
U.S. guidelines suggest getting those 150 minutes a week through 30-minute sessions on 5 days of each week. If 30 minutes is too big or taxing a chunk to do at a time, you can still get exercise benefits if you work out in 10-minute bouts of activity. Keep a tally to check your progress as you reach for the weekly goal.
Note: Start each cardio session with a slow warm-up phase and end it in the same way—5-to-10 minutes of your chosen exercise done at an easy intensity or simply walking.
Resistance training, also called weight training and strength training, increases muscle mass to help improve strength. That makes it easier to do everyday tasks. Resistance training becomes more important as you get older—adults lose about a half-pound of muscle mass each year after age 25.
Among many positives, maintaining muscle burns more calories than fat, even when you’re at rest, making it easier to reach and keep a healthy weight. You don’t need to train like a bodybuilder and develop huge muscles to get the increased bone, muscle, tendon and ligament strength from this type of exercise.
There are many options for resistance training, whether at home or at a gym or fitness center:
- Exercises that use your own body weight like push-ups, pull-ups, crunches and squats.
- Resistance bands. These lightweight lengths of stretchy material provide resistance when used for specific exercises. They come in different strengths so you can step up the difficulty as you progress.
- Free weights. These include standard barbells and dumbbells, but you can use large cans or empty jugs filled with water or sand.
- Weight machines. A good fitness center will have one or more different machines for each of your body’s muscle groups. There are also all-in-one resistance home machines available if you want to make the investment.
Note: Always warm up your muscles before resistance training with at least 5-to-10 minutes of light aerobics such as easy walking.
Stretching and flexibility exercises improve your range of motion and reduce the risk of muscle injury and soreness. They help make your muscles more limber and longer; short, tight muscles risk being overstretched and injured. Follow these guidelines:
Stretch every day. Always stretch after aerobic exercise and resistance training, when your muscles are warmed up from the workout. Also stretch on any non-workout days: Warm up with light activity and then stretch.
- Stretch every day. Always stretch after aerobic exercise and resistance training, when your muscles are warmed up from the workout. Also stretch on any non-workout days: Warm up with light activity and then stretch. Stretching cold muscles isn’t effective and can lead to injury.
- Inhale, then as you exhale, ease yourself into each stretch without pushing too far—you should be able to feel the stretch, but not be in any discomfort.
- Hold each stretch for 30 seconds—no bouncing. Breathe naturally.
- Gently release the stretch. Repeat each stretch twice. (Photo: Mayo Clinic)
Balance exercises help prevent falls, especially important as you age. Exercises that strengthen the muscles in the legs, hips and lower back often help with balance, but try these specific balance exercises, too:
- Alternate standing on one foot
- Walk across the room heel-to-toe
- Stand on your tiptoes as though you were reaching for an item on a high shelf
- Slowly walk up and down a flight of stairs
If you have balance problems, a physical therapist can map out a program tailored to your needs. Talk to your healthcare provider about a referral.
Doing moderate activity is safe for most people, but it makes sense to talk to your healthcare provider before you get started, especially if you have a chronic health condition such as heart disease, arthritis or diabetes. Discuss which types and amounts of physical activity are best suited to your health needs. For instance, if you already have osteoporosis (thinning, fragile bones), you might need to avoid high-impact aerobics, like running, and activities with a high risk of falling.
Why is it so hard to make time for exercise? It might not be a time problem since you can start with just 10 minutes here and there. It could be that you haven’t found activities that you like and that you look forward to doing. If you don’t care for running on a treadmill, it will be a challenge to ever feel enthusiastic about it.
Exercise should never be unpleasant—or painful. It can be fun, like dance for instance, which researchers found is a great way for people struggling with obesity and/or diabetes to get active. Here’s how to press the motivation button and make exercise an activity you really look forward to.
Psychologists say there are two kinds of motivation—internal, or the personal pleasure you get from the activity, and external, like the desire to get in shape for an upcoming wedding, for example.
Change is easier when you have internal motivation—you’ll still experience it long after the wedding has passed. While it’s not easy to see some health benefits of exercise—you can’t really feel lower blood pressure or cholesterol, there are others that can make you feel better and provide a cycle of motivation, like sleeping better at night and having more energy during the day.
Think of motivation as a powerful force that snowballs. Every 10-minute block of exercise you do gives you a sense of satisfaction that you can build on.
To help you get motivated, take these steps that will lead to success:
- Identify the benefits of exercise that will positively impact your personal health, like reducing your diabetes risk or lowering blood pressure.
- Draw up a plan that includes small goals at first, bigger goals as you progress.
- Take the first step to fitness, like a 10-minute walk every day for a week.
- Add to your daily exercise on a weekly basis. If you did a 10-minute walk every day last week, take 15-minute walks this week. Next week, add two 10-minute dance sessions, and so on.
- If you have a smartphone, look for an app that includes tips and techniques for making changes in behavior as well as providing instruction on how to perform exercises.
- Once you’ve worked up to getting 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, plus resistance training, stretching and balance exercises, try new activities to stay excited about exercise.
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