Why you should start treating exercise as medicine
Exercise isn’t just for regular gym goers or athletes; it is a useful tool for people of all ages and abilities to maintain health through every stage of life. Engaging in an appropriate level of regular physical activity can help prevent, treat, or even reverse, chronic diseases as we age.
Much like the changing of the seasons, our bodies change and adapt year after year. With September being Healthy Aging Month, it is important to focus on how we can create healthy changes to our bodies over the years. For example, many illnesses often associated with aging are actually the result of sedentary lifestyle and can be avoided by moving and staying physically active (Gonzales et al., 2017). Most people are probably aware that exercise is a great way to stay in shape, build muscle, and burn calories, but the benefits of exercise go well beyond losing weight, running faster, or getting stronger. The American College of Sports Medicine believes that “exercise is medicine” and engaging in an appropriate level of regular physical activity can help prevent, treat, or even reverse, chronic diseases as we age (Swisher, 2010).
Regular exercise is associated with reduced resting heart rate and blood pressure, increased HDL (good) cholesterol and decreased LDL (bad) cholesterol, reduced total body fat, reduced blood platelet adhesiveness and aggregation, improved glucose tolerance (decreased insulin resistance), decreased workload on the heart, and increased bone density (Nystoriac & Bhatnagar, 2018). According to the American Heart Association and the CDC, adults who participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise (brisk walk or light weight training) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (jogging or playing basketball) have a significantly reduced risk of developing type II diabetes, cancers, and cardiovascular diseases.
The idea of exercise serving as medicine does not only apply to adults. Children and adolescents who participate in regular supervised weight training have a reduced risk of developing osteoporosis when they are adults. Young individuals who exercise and participate in sports also have decreased body fat percentage and increased fat free mass (muscle and bone) later in life, compared to those with a sedentary lifestyle. Furthermore, regular aerobic exercise at a young age can reduce risk of developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease later in life (Drenowatz & Greier, 2018).
Speaking of cardiovascular disease: it is the leading cause of death worldwide. In the United States, an average of 2,400 people die from cardiovascular disease every day, accounting for 1 out of every 2.8 deaths. Poor health outcomes resulting from cardiovascular disease such as coronary artery disease, chronic ischemia, stroke, and arterial stiffness are on the rise globally, and cardiovascular disease related healthcare costs are expected to increase from 172 billion in 2010 to 276 billion in 2030 in the United States (Pagidipati & Gaziano, 2013; Heidenreich et al., 2011). However, exercise can help reduce mortality from heart disease by increasing the elasticity of arteries which results in greater control over blood pressure. Exercise can also increase blood flow to the heart by increasing the number of branches between blood vessels feeding the heart. These collateral branches can then help supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood in the event of a coronary occlusion which may prevent or lesson the severity of a heart attack (Meier et al., 2013).
To learn more about the direct and indirect effects of exercise on the body, we turn to the field of exercise physiology. Exercise physiologists are medical professionals who prescribe plans that can maximize the benefits of exercise in people struggling with chronic disease. They work with doctors, nurses, and physical therapists to design exercise programs to treat cardiopulmonary diseases such as congestive heart failure and metabolic diseases such as diabetes. Cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs last roughly three months and patients are encouraged to perform moderate intensity aerobic exercise three times per week for one hour under close supervision. In addition, education on health topics such as exercise, recovery, and nutrition are provided, and vitals are continuously monitored to ensure the prescribed exercise is having a positive and significant enough effect. Patients that successfully complete exercise programs designed by exercise physiologists often have significant improvements in their heart and lung function, as well as greater control over blood sugar levels (Bozkurt et al., 2021).
Exercise isn’t just for regular gym goers or athletes; it is a useful tool for people of all ages and abilities to maintain health through every stage of life. Exercise should be seen as a requisite to living and just like regular maintenance of your car, it is necessary to ensure our bodies function properly over time. Staying active and adhering to the recommended exercise guidelines is essential, and some people dealing with complex health issues may need extra guidance and care. Exercise physiologists can prescribe a safe and targeted exercise plan for those suffering from chronic disease or other health issues to ensure they meet the recommended dosage of exercise.
Bozkurt, Biykem et al. “Cardiac Rehabilitation for Patients With Heart Failure: JACC Expert Panel.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology vol. 77,11 (2021): 1454-1469. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2021.01.030
Drenowatz, Clemens, and Klaus Greier. "Resistance training in youth—benefits and characteristics." Journal of Biomedicine 3 (2018): 32-39.
Garber, Carol Ewing et al. “American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise vol. 43,7 (2011): 1334-59. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318213fefb
González, Karimé et al. “Physical Inactivity, Sedentary Behavior and Chronic Diseases.” Korean journal of family medicine vol. 38,3 (2017): 111-115. doi:10.4082/kjfm.2017.38.3.111
Heidenreich, Paul A et al. “Forecasting the future of cardiovascular disease in the United States: a policy statement from the American Heart Association.” Circulation vol. 123,8 (2011): 933-44. doi:10.1161/CIR.0b013e31820a55f5
Meier, Pascal et al. “The collateral circulation of the heart.” BMC medicine vol. 11 143. 4 Jun. 2013, doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-143
Nystoriak, Matthew A, and Aruni Bhatnagar. “Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise.” Frontiers in cardiovascular medicine vol. 5 135. 28 Sep. 2018, doi:10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135
Pagidipati, Neha J. and Thomas Andrew Gaziano. “Estimating Deaths From Cardiovascular Disease: A Review of Global Methodologies of Mortality Measurement.” Circulation 127 (2013): 749–756.
Swisher, Anne K. “Yes, "Exercise is Medicine"….but It Is So Much More!.” Cardiopulmonary physical therapy journal vol. 21,4 (2010): 4
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