If you’re trying to lose weight, there’s no doubt about it, changing your diet is more important than exercising. (That’s the topic of one of my favorite mythbusters, in fact.) But does that mean you should skip exercising altogether? Absolutely not. Exercise reduces chronic disease and can sometimes even replace medication.
While working out might not be the number one factor in shedding pounds, it’s vital for so much more than weight loss. Not only do the benefits of exercise include feeling happier and boosting energy levels, but it’s a proven way to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and cancer — who doesn’t want that?
Today, chronic diseases are the most common, expensive and, critically, the most preventable of all health problems. (1) In fact, heart disease and cancer, both considered chronic diseases, accounted for 48 percent of all deaths in the United States in 2010. Frankly, that is an incredible number. And the fact that there is way too much sitting in our lives and we’re more sedentary than ever before doesn’t help. (2) But research shows that exercise actually fights disease in an all-natural way that can sometimes rival medication. Let’s dig in.
How Exercise Reduces Chronic Disease
So what actually happens to your body when you exercise? As it turns out, a lot. And some of the world’s leading doctors are paying attention. In a 2015 report, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, a consortium of 21 medical institutions in the United Kingdom and Ireland, called exercise a “miracle cure.” (3) So why is it exactly that exercising makes such a massive impact on how your body fights disease — what exactly happens when you get up and get moving?
For starters, your body demands glucose, or stored sugar, to give it energy. It also requires adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, to keep going. Because our bodies store limited amounts of both, we need more oxygen to create more ATP. More blood starts flowing to your muscles to provide them with the oxygen boost they need.
To get that oxygen circulating, your heart rate will quicken, enabling your body to circulate blood more quickly and efficiently where it’s needed. And because the human body is awesome, the more you exercise, the better your heart becomes at getting that oxygen around speedily. Keep at it and you’ll notice that an exercise that once wiped you out is now a lot easier — plus, your resting heart rate will go down.
With all that blood swirling around, some of it is sure to go to your head. That’s actually a good thing. It gets your brain cells fired up, making you feel more energized and alert. You know how you might be exhausted before starting a workout and by the end, you’re feeling pretty peppy? Yep, thank your brain for that. It’s also releasing neurotransmitters like endorphins and serotonin, giving you that post-workout high. (4, 5)
Knowing that all of this is happening concurrently is pretty cool. But how does it actually help fight or prevent disease? I’m so glad you asked.
What Are the Benefits of Exercise When Fighting Disease?
Because physical inactivity and living a sedentary lifestyle is one of the main causes of most chronic diseases, exercising regularly is preventative medicine if you don’t already have a chronic disease. It’s also a proven way of managing or reducing symptoms. (6) Below are some of the most common chronic diseases and the ways in which exercise can help.
Heart disease. One of the most obvious places exercise reduces chronic disease is in this category. Heart disease is one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in America. In fact, 610,000 people die annually in the U.S. from heart disease — that’s 1 in 4, and second only to cancer. It’s the leading cause of death for nearly every ethnicity in the country, too. (7)
Exercise fights heart disease in a variety of ways, though. It lowers high blood pressure, reducing strain on your heart to pump blood throughout. It also increases good HDL cholesterol. We usually hear how bad cholesterol is — but why do our bodies need cholesterol? The good kind is critical for proper neurological function, repairing scar tissue and regulating hormones.
As your body becomes more adept at circulating blood, you’ll enjoy improved circulation. That means a reduced risk of blood clots, which often lead to strokes or heart attacks.
Diabetes. In 2012, 9.3 percent of Americans were living with diabetes — that’s 29.1 million people. (8) Exercise can actually play a major role in managing diabetes. Staying active allows your blood sugar to stabilize and assists insulin in absorbing glucose. Because muscles use glucose more effectively than fat does, working out regularly prevents high blood sugar levels, which is what actually causes diabetes. (9)
Exercise also improves circulation, reduces bad cholesterol levels and alleviates stress, all of which can increase glucose levels.
Musculoskeletal diseases. Musculoskeletal diseases are a fancy way of saying diseases affecting the joints, skeleton and muscles, like arthritis or osteoporosis. Because exercising puts extra weight on your joints, conventional thinking would assume that it would actually lead to more joint-related diseases, not less.
However, regular exercise actually increases strength and flexibility by increasing your mobility range. (10) It also reduces the pain associated with musculoskeletal diseases. (11)
Brain health. Perhaps one of the biggest ways that exercise reduces disease is by improving brain health. This has a chain reaction on the body. For example, it’s the brain that triggers signals of inflammation, and inflammation is at the root of most diseases. (12)
Exercising also stimulates chemicals in the brain that affect the growth of brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus. This is the part of your brain that’s mostly responsible for memory and is most likely to decline as you age and can lead to dementia. The more you exercise, the more of these chemicals you produce.
Research also shows that regular physical activity like exercise improves the integrity of white matter in the brain. White matter is linked to quicker neural conduction amongst regions of the brain and higher cognitive performance. Disease like multiple sclerosis, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases are affected by a deterioration or changes in white matter.
Cancer. Exercise has long been advocated as a way of reducing the risk of certain types of cancers, like breast, colon and endometrial cancers. But because of small numbers of participants in studies looking at exercise’s impact on other types of cancers, the results were often inconclusive in the past.
That’s all changed, though. A recent study conducted by the National Cancer Institute pooled together data of nearly 1.5 million people ranging in age from 19 to 98 years old in both the U.S. and Europe. This gave researchers the the ability to study people with many different cancers; not just the common ones, but also some rarer forms. Increasing physical activity was found to lower the risk of 13 types of cancers, including liver and kidney cancers and myeloid leukemia.
For people who already have cancer, exercising when possible can improve physical condition, strengthening the body to better withstand treatment. Consult with your doctors to choose the best type for your situation.
Is Exercising Better Than Drugs or Medication?
I believe that exercise can be a very effective way of preventing chronic diseases and reducing symptoms. It might even lead to you being able to reduce or eliminate prescription medications.
I would, however, urge you to work with a doctor who takes a holistic approach to your health before eliminating any prescribed drugs or courses of medication. Don’t be afraid to look around until you find the right doctor. Some, for instance, might even prescribe exercise as a therapy. (13)
How Much Exercise Do You Need to Experience Health Benefits?
Are you worried you’ll need to go from couch potato to marathoner? Not so fast! You don’t actually need a crazy amount of exercise to reap all the health benefits. The American Heart Association recommends 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three to four times a week to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Remember, that’s 40 minutes total — you can split it anyway you’d like.
Turning to high-intensity interval training workouts is also a terrific option. HIIT workouts beat conventional cardio by delivering the same physical benefits in a shorter amount of time, usually 20-30 minutes. If you have a difficult time making time for exercise, HIIT and tabata workouts can easily be squeezed into your day.
But it’s OK if that’s not your thing. The key is finding out what is. If you enjoy swimming, hit the local pool a few times a week. Take your dog on a brisk walk after dinner. Try some vinyasa yoga classes or a fun group fitness workout. If you love to cycle but want to do it in the comfort of your home (and if it’s within your budget) consider checking out and investing in a Peloton bike. Anything is better than nothing, and finding a workout you enjoy will ensure you keep at it regularly. The opportunities are endless!
Of course, there’s another very real reality. For many people who are already suffering from certain condition, these sorts of vigorous exercises might not even be an option. If you’re experiencing serious pain, fatigue or other ailments from chronic disease, getting out of bed might be an achievement, never mind running miles at the gym.
If that’s the case, don’t give up on exercise. Work with your doctor or physical therapist to design a program you can do. Can’t walk a mile? Try walking around the block. Tai chi can be a good way to tap into the mind-body connection even with limited mobility, too.
Final Thoughts on the Idea That Exercise Reduces Chronic Disease
It’s amazing that at a time when so many gadgets, devices, medications and drugs are available, one of the best ways to reduce the risk of chronic diseases is still totally all-natural, free and available to most of us. Don’t miss out on your very own “miracle cure.” Get out there and exercise. When you’re feeling uninspired, remember: Exercise reduces chronic disease. It could very well help you live a longer, healthier, happier life!
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