UPI just published a poll that says that more than 80% of American adults have a regular exercise regimen. If true, that would be very exciting. Then again, it could also be viewed as a major black eye for exercise since it would seem that all this activity is having little impact on overall health in the United States. The truth of the matter, though, is that exercise is vital to health and has enormous impact. The poll, on the other hand, is probably much less than it seems.
First of all, polls themselves are suspect since people often idealize their answers -- telling pollsters what they wish they were doing, rather than what they are actually doing. Then too, on closer inspection, the numbers tell a slightly different story than the headlines would suggest. The poll found that 16% of respondents copped to the fact that they never exercised at all, and 19% said that their regimen consisted of exercising once a week. Quite simply, once a week does not qualify as a regular regimen despite the claims of the pollsters. That means that approximately 35% of Americans are not participating in any form of regular exercise -- about the same percentage considered clinically obese. Hmm!
And still another 27% said that they exercised less than 30 minutes at a time. Now if you consider the next group in the poll, the 29% who exercise only 2-3 times per week, you realize that many of them are really only exercising for a total of 60-90 minutes a week -- the barest minimum of a routine. Throw those people into the mix, and you're now looking at a total of about 60% -- about the same percentage that qualifies as overweight in the United States. When all is said and done, you can see a direct correlation between lack of sufficient exercise and excess weight, but the importance of exercise goes far beyond obesity. Exercise impacts almost every aspect of health. It can:
- Reduce the risk of premature death
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Reduce high blood pressure
- Reduce high cholesterol
- Reduce the risks of many cancers, including colon and breast cancer
- Reduce the risk of developing diabetes
- Reduce fat and optimize body weight
- Build and maintain healthy muscles, bones, and joints
- Reduce depression and anxiety
- Enhance performance in work and sport
It's not my purpose in this newsletter to teach you how to exercise -- there are many books, DVDs, and websites that teach you how to do that -- but rather, to explain to you why you need to exercise and why you need to commit to multiple forms of exercise. Believe it or not, running every day, won't cut it. Going to the gym every day and working out with weights every day won't cut it. You need it all: cardio/aerobic exercise, strength training, weight-bearing exercise, stretching, breathing, and balance.
Let's start by talking about cardio/aerobic exercise.
By definition, cardio/aerobic exercise is brisk physical activity that requires the heart and lungs to work harder to meet the body's increased oxygen demand. Aerobic exercise promotes the circulation of oxygen through the blood. The key part of the definition here is the word oxygen. The defining aspect of aerobic exercise is that it is of sufficient intensity to force the heart and lungs to work harder, and yet of low enough intensity to facilitate adequate oxygen transfer to the muscle cells so that no buildup of lactic acid is observed. Another way of looking at aerobic exercise is that it involves repetitive movement of large muscle groups (such as your arms, legs, and hips) -- with all of the needed energy supplied by the oxygen you breathe. When you're aerobically fit, your body takes in and utilizes oxygen more efficiently -- to sustain the repetitive muscle movement. Benefits include:
- Improved heart and lung function
- Lower heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased blood supply to muscles and improved ability to use oxygen
- Increased HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol)
- Decreased triglycerides
- Reduced body fat and improved weight control
- Improved glucose tolerance and reduced insulin resistance
- Enhanced immune function, which means
- Increased resistance to viral and bacterial infection
- Increased resistance to cancer
- Lowered blood sugar levels and reduced risk of diabetes
- Longer life expectancy
There is a world of aerobic exercise to choose from. Choose one or two that you enjoy and can easily pursue. For example, don't choose swimming if you live in the desert and the nearest pool is 60 miles away. Take your pick. There's running, jogging, and fast walking. Biking (either road or mountain), and swimming are also good. If you belong to a gym or have home equipment, there are treadmills, elliptical trainers, spin cycles, and rebounders -- with more being invented and marketed all the time. Just pick one or two that you like, can do easily, and are willing to do.
Interval training is a form of aerobic exercise with periods of high intensity activity followed by periods of lower intensity activity. For example, you might run at your fastest pace for 30 seconds, followed by a rest interval in which you do not stop, but continue the same exercise -- maybe now lightly jogging -- to allow your body to recover from the intense burst. Then you repeat the set several times during the workout. Interval training has been shown to burn more fat -- both belly and visceral fat -- than typical, steady aerobic workouts do.
Strength training involves the use of weights or some other form of resistance to build muscle and increase strength. Its benefits include:
- Increased muscle strength
- Increased tendon and ligament strength
- Reduced body fat and increased muscle mass
- Better balance
- Lower blood cholesterol
- Improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity
Contrary to popular opinion, strength training is not just for young people. Studies have shown that people in their 70's and 80's can experience strength gains of as much as 180% in just a few weeks!
What kinds of strength training options are available? Again, as with aerobics, there is a world of choices. There are free weights, stacked weight machines, and Nautilus circuits at the gym. There's resistance training as found in Soloflex and Bowflex machines and push/pull resistance as found in the Delta Trimax machine. Then there's Pilates equipment and the Total Gym that use your own body weight as resistance. Any and all can work. Choose one that works for you and that you can do easily and are willing to do regularly.
It's worth noting that weight training is the ultimate way to burn calories fast. A pound of muscle burns up to nine times the calories of a pound of fat. In other words, strength training increases your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you burn while sleeping or sitting. The trick is that muscle is active tissue. That is, it requires a lot of energy just to maintain itself. In fact, every pound of new muscle you add to your body will burn about 60 calories per day. Adding just 10 pounds of muscle to your body, will burn off 62 pounds of fat over the next year -- even while you are sleeping! And it will continue to do so the next year…and the next.
Weight Bearing Exercise
Weight bearing exercise is actually a subset of certain aerobic and strength training exercises. It is exercise in which you force your body to support weight (your own included) while exercising. Studies have shown that weight bearing exercise can help slow down the rate of bone loss and osteoporosis, and therefore reduce fractures. How does it do this? First, weight-bearing exercise directly stimulates bone formation. Then, it strengthens muscles that in turn pull and tug on bones. This pulling action actually causes the bones to become denser and stronger. Weight-bearing activities at any age benefit bone health. Studies have shown that even people in their 90's can increase bone mass with weight bearing exercise.
The best weight bearing exercises are: weight-lifting, jogging, hiking with a back pack, stair-climbing, step aerobics, racquet sports, and other activities that require your muscles to work against gravity. Swimming and simple walking don't do the trick. One exceptionally useful form of weight bearing exercise is rebounding. The act of rebounding makes use of g-forces, just like astronauts training in a centrifuge. Rebounding can actually achieve momentary g-forces of 3.5, which means that the bones of a 150 lb person will momentarily have to bear 525 lbs of weight on each bounce. That's a lot of weight bearing.
Note: the benefits of weight-bearing exercise are site-specific. This means that you strengthen only the bones used directly in the exercise. In other words, it's a good idea to participate in a variety of weight-bearing exercises. To maintain the bone-building benefits, the exercise needs to be continued on a regular basis.
Stretching is the step child of exercise, with more lip service paid to it than actual practice. Stretching though is crucial to good health. The usual benefits cited include:
- Reduced muscle tension
- Injury prevention
- Increased range of movement in the joints
- Enhanced muscular coordination
- Increased circulation of the blood to various parts of the body
- Increased energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)
Think for a moment of the opposite of stretching -- tightness and restriction. By definition, you are talking about constriction in muscles and soft tissue. Tightness and constriction mean reduced blood flow to that muscle and soft tissue, a reduced supply of nutrients to the area of tension, and reduced removal of metabolic waste from those areas. Areas that are tense and constricted, then, are breeding grounds for illness and organ dysfunction. Now tie in the whole concept of traditional Chinese medicine which says that all disease results from restrictions in the flow of energy in the body and the resulting energy imbalances that creates, and you can see that stretching is not just an issue of feeling good; it is essential for maintaining optimum health.
What kinds of stretching are good? Yoga is probably the best stretching exercise there is, but Pilates works well too. If nothing else, just do 5-10 minutes of simple stretching after your daily exercise routine as part of your cool down time.
Note: It is not by accident that at 59 years old, I can still do full splits.
Proper breathing is topic worthy of its own newsletter, but for now, let's just focus on the advantages of resistance breathing. The concept is simple: putting a device in your mouth that restricts (in a controlled manner) your inhalations and exhalations, which forces your lungs to work harder. This, in turn, strengthens the muscles that makes your lungs work and increases their capacity. There are a number of such devices widely available on the internet and in health magazines. They tend to run $20-40. The investment is well worth it since this type of exercise can significantly improve the strength of your respiratory muscles and increase your lung capacity.
How much of a benefit are we talking about?
Studies have shown that these devices can increase breathing endurance by close to 300%. Considering how fundamental oxygen is to health, it's not hard to see the short and long-term health and performance advantages of doing so.
One other key aspect of exercise is balance. Why? Because like all other physical abilities, it diminishes with age unless we consciously exercise it. Is that a bad thing? Only if you fall down and break your hip or wrist. Here's a simple balance exercise you can do daily. It takes just a couple of minutes and will produce quick improvement.
- Stand while holding for support, with one hand, the back edge of a chair set beside you.
- Bend the leg nearest to the chair at the knee 90 degrees so that your knees are still together and the foot of the bent leg is projected out behind you.
- Get used to balancing on the one leg while holding the chair.
- Then turn to the other side and do the other leg.
Once you can comfortably balance like this:
- Try taking your hand off the chair and balancing on the one leg without support from the chair.
- As you get more comfortable doing this, try to stop using your arms for balance and pull your hands in, palms together in front of your chest, like in a Far East prayer position. This will force the act of balance to the muscles of one leg.
Once you can comfortably balance like this:
- Try closing your eyes and holding the pose for 30 seconds.
If you really want to improve your balance, many yoga poses are specifically designed as balance poses, utilizing arms, legs, hips -- the entire body, in fact. On a more modern note, there's a whole new breed of vibrating-platform exercise-equipment that makes use of forcing you to balance while working out. The net effect is that because the balancing aspect forces you to use an entirely separate set of muscles in addition to your normal work out muscles, it dramatically accelerates the benefits of exercise.
Exercise is as important to good health as proper nutrition. Speaking of which, your need for proper nutrition is increased by exercise.
- You will need more quality protein to build the muscles you are exercising. I know soy and whey are the "in vogue" supplements for body builders. I much prefer the combination of rice protein and yellow pea protein. It is virtually of the same quality and bioavailability as those other sources, but has one huge advantage. It is hypoallergenic and extremely easy to digest.
- You also need quality carbohydrates, especially ultra-long-chain carbohydrates (ULCs) such as pre-sprouted barley. ULCs release energy over several hours and do not spike sugar levels.
- You also need high quality fats -- Omega-3s and 9s in particular.
- When you are exercising, you utilize more oxygen, which by definition produces more free radicals so you will need more antioxidants to clear them. Look for a full spectrum antioxidant, rather than a single source wonder supplement.
- And you will want higher intake of minerals (particularly electrolytes) and water soluble vitamins (vitamin C, and all of the B vitamins) since you will be using them up and sweating them out at an accelerated rate. As a side note, instead of drinking high-sugar sports beverages, you might want to consider just adding liquid trace minerals to your water.
The one area that you gain nutritionally is natural detoxification. Exercise is its own form of detoxing. It removes waste from the lymph. It stimulates peristalsis to remove waste from the colon. And it accelerates the removal of waste through sweat and urine.
Bottom line: If you don't move you die. Exercise fundamentally changes every system and function in your body.