Is Exercise Really the Best Medicine?

By Alisa Hrustic |

Here’s exactly how a daily dose of movement lowers your risk of disease.

exercise the best medicine

You’ve heard the saying “exercise is the best medicine,” but is that really true?

When it comes to reducing your risk of conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, dementia, osteoarthritis, and cancer, the answer is a resounding yes.

“Exercise has a profound effect on both the prevention and treatment of numerous chronic diseases,” explains Christian K. Roberts, Ph.D., exercise physiologist of the Gerofit program at the Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System.

In fact, research has shown that being sedentary is a major cause of many chronic diseases.

Case in point: The most active individuals had 20 percent lower risk for seven types of cancer than those who were the least active, according to a large study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Other research, from the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, examined nearly 2,500 people ages 65 to 74 and found that moderate to high levels of exercise were associated with a lower risk of heart disease as well as a lower risk of premature death from any cause.

How Exactly Does Exercise Help?

Moving helps your muscles grow stronger, keeps your hormones balanced, and decreases inflammation throughout your body, Roberts says. Inflammation is linked to many chronic diseases, including diabetes and arthritis.

A 2016 study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise activates your sympathetic nervous system, which releases hormones into your bloodstream that give your immune system a boost. In the study, this resulted in a 5 percent decrease in an inflammation-causing hormone called cytokine TNF.

Exercise also directly improves your heart and blood vessel function—after all, you’re quite literally getting your blood pumping. Regular exercise helps your heart work more efficiently, making it easier to maintain healthy blood pressure and, in turn, reducing your risk of heart disease.

Exercise has also been shown to lower blood glucose levels, combat stress, and even reduce pain associated with arthritis.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

Any exercise is good exercise. But to reap all these benefits, you'll want to do as much as you're able. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, but it's a good idea to do more if you can.

"Although it depends on many factors, many older adults benefit from at least one hour per day of physical activity," Roberts says. "That includes daily activities, such as walking, in concert with a structured training program."

Ideally, you want to do cardio—such as jogging, biking, or swimming—as well as strength training, like lifting weights or using resistance bands. Strength training helps build muscle mass, which is especially key because it’s common for older adults to lose muscle.

It’s also a good idea to work in some flexibility exercises, like yoga or stretching. These four everyday stretches are a great place to start.

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Good news: Many SilverSneakers classes combine all of these important elements so you can get a fun, effective workout led by a knowledgeable instructor who is trained in working with older adults. You’ll also have a chance to meet new friends, which can help you stay connected and boost your overall health.

What Exercise Can’t Do

As powerful as exercise is, keep in mind that it's not a cure-all. If you already have a medical condition, chances are you'll still need medication for it. But depending on the ailment, exercising might enable you to lower your dose. More than that, you will likely improve your quality of life: You should have less pain and more energy to play with your grandchildren, travel, or do anything else you enjoy.

Be sure to talk to your doctor if you’re new to exercise or are dealing with any medical problems that might limit your ability to be active or perform specific movements. If you have had a fall-related injury or are recovering from a heart attack, for example, your doctor can help you get the treatment you need and get back to exercise safely.

Meanwhile, keep in mind that regular activity is just one of many lifestyle factors that can help you stay healthy, Roberts says. You should also aim to eat a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables, reduce your stress level, get at least seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night, and quit smoking if you're a smoker. These habits, combined with frequent exercise, will help you live healthier, happier, and longer.

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