It seems nearly every day brings with it a new scientific report on the benefits of exercise. Unfortunately, all of the reports don’t always coincide with each other. Some studies show hugely positive effects, others show hugely negative effects and some don’t permit any conclusions at all.

Although the path of least resistance may lead you to prefer those reports that show no, or harmful effects of exercise, the truth is that the best way to keep your body and mind in top shape is to be physically active.

Almost everyone, no matter what his or her physical condition, can engage in at least some form of bodily exercise. To be most efficient, your exercise regime should follow the guidelines for your age and overall health status. However, each and every one of us can certainly exercise our minds, even if our bodies don’t always cooperate.

Sorting through the wealth of data on exercise and health, the Daily Sun has compiled this list of nine excellent reasons to work that body and/or mind of yours. Here’s a brief run-down on the impressive ways that exercise can keep you in the best possible shape.

1. Exercise builds aerobic power. Your aerobic capacity is your body’s ability to work at maximum capacity by getting oxygen from the air to your body’s tissues. Ordinarily, people lose about 1 percent a year of their aerobic power or 10 percent per decade. If you start calculating at the age of 40, this means that people can lose 30 percent of their maximum aerobic capacity by the time they reach age 70. That’s a lot of unnecessary huffing and puffing. Both long-term and short-term exercise training studies show that you can cut this loss in half so that you’re losing 15 percent, rather than 30 percent, in that 30-year period. Many of the other benefits of exercise stem from this basic fact, so if you remember nothing else from this list, building aerobic power is your most important reason to exercise.

2. It reduces blood pressure. Chronic hypertension is the number one form of heart disease. The causes of hypertension include the increased plaque in the arteries that builds up from consuming a high-fat diet. Exercise helps reduce your blood pressure, in part, by attacking the plaque in your arteries. As the arteries widen, the blood flows through more freely, and your blood pressure eventually starts to drop to healthier levels. Hypertension also decreases as the result of exercise because your heart, a muscle, is getting a workout. The stronger your heart muscle gets, the greater its ability to pump blood through the arteries, which also helps to reduce your blood pressure.

3. Working out lowers the risk for Type 2 diabetes. You’ve probably heard that an increase in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is becoming a worldwide public health crisis. Even if you don’t care about the health of the world, you should care about your own risk of diabetes. The complications of adult-onset Type 2 diabetes pose a serious risk to your physical well-being. By engaging in regular physical exercise, you improve your body’s ability to metabolize glucose, the key to staving off this disease.

4. Physical activity maintains immune functioning. Your immune system is what protects you from infection and other chemical toxins. The immune system also plays a role in maintaining a healthy response to stress (more on this later). Although for many years, researchers talked about “immune senescence” as an inevitable result of aging, we now know that the studies showing these inevitable declines were conducted on people who didn’t exercise. Even short-term exercise programs can reverse some of the deleterious effects of aging on this sensitive, complex, and crucial regulatory system which controls so much of your everyday health.

5. It reduces body fat. Your BMI, or body mass index, provides an approximate measure of your overall metabolic status. To calculate yours, go to the Centers for Disease Control website. If you’re in the overweight to obese categories now, a regular program of aerobic exercise can bring your BMI down to normal levels, mainly by swapping the fat for the fat-free tissues in your body. The good news is that the more you exercise, the more you are able to work off your body fat because muscle “burns off” more calories, effectively speeding up your metabolism.

6. Exercise keeps bones strong. Another normal age-related change is the loss of bone mineral strength. Here again, the magic number of a 1 percent loss per year seems to be the considered wisdom of how fast our body’s bones get thinner and weaker. Once again, though, exercise is the key to maintaining your bone’s health. The specific form of exercise required for bone strength involves resistance training in which you lift weights. The amount of resistance training varies according to your age and physical strength, but it’s got to be more than just picking up a gallon of milk and moving it from the grocery bag to the frig. You need to spend no less than an hour a week of increasingly strenuous weight-lifting until you reach your maximum potential.

7. Activity helps build muscle mass. Resistance training also builds your muscles. In fact, the tension of your muscles against your bones is what also helps your bones get the maximum benefit of weight lifting. If you don’t engage in regular weight-lifting, you’ll lose muscle strength at the rate of – guess what—1 percent per year. If you do, you can cut this – guess again—in half. In fact, the process of “sarcopenia,” which refers to normal loss of muscle strength with age, is best reversed by this type of exercise. Keeping your muscles strong also helps you stay more aerobically fit and helps you maintain a healthy lean (or fat-free) body mass.

8. It improves breathing. Aging affects the tissues of the lung in some ways that can’t be changed by exercise. However, exercise can improve your breathing by strengthening the muscles that help your lungs open up to bring in oxygen and compress to push out carbon dioxide. Exercise also improves the efficiency with which oxygen permeates the cells of your body through its effects on aerobic capacity. While the non-exercisers will have to stop their workout to catch a breath, you’ll be able to push on past them due to this greater efficiency of your breathing capacity.

9. Working out boosts your energy. Because your body is functioning more efficiently, you’ve got more oxygen to fuel your body’s cells. You also feel fewer aches and pains and have greater strength. As a result, you can go about your daily activities feeling less fatigued, stressed, and weary. Although going to the gym early in the morning or late in the afternoon may feel like the last thing you have energy to do, once you build exercise into your daily routines, these workout bouts will actually seem less tiresome because you’ll feel more mentally and physically capable of carrying them out.

Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., ABPP. She is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 


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