Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

19 Reasons to Exercise

From neurons to hormones: Why your body needs a workout.

Every day brings with it a new scientific report on the benefits of exercise. Unfortunately, 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.

I’ve culled through the wealth of data on exercise and health to come up with this list of 19 solid reasons to work that body and/or mind of yours. Here’s the short and sweet on these impressive ways that exercise can keep you in the best possible shape.

1.  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, if you’d like to do the math, 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 precent 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.  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. 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.   Lowers Type 2 diabetes risk. You’ve probably heard that an increase in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is becoming a world-wide 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.   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.  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.  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.  Builds 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.  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.   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.

10.  Reduces the risk of arthritis. The most commonly experienced chronic illness in middle-aged and older adults, arthritis occurs due to abnormalities in the cartilage and outgrowth of bones in the joints. Unlike the other physical benefits of exercise, reducing the chances of arthritis doesn’t depend on heavy duty aerobic activity or even weight training. In fact, you may actually heighten your risk of arthritis if you do too much of the wrong kind of exercise. Running on the pavement, particularly in shoes that aren’t appropriately cushioned, can cause you to be more likely to get arthritis. Instead, you need to engage in stretching and flexibility training through yoga, Tai Chi, or other ways to increase the range of movement of your joints. This will lower your risk of injury through muscle tears or torn ligaments, and in the process protect your joints from damage caused by overuse.

11.   Improves sex life. Keeping your muscles active through use helps promote the demands placed on your endocrine glands to produce more hormones. With more muscle mass comes greater stimulation to produce androgens which help both men and women maintain their sexual functioning. You are also likely to feel more fit and be more fit, which in turn will benefit your interest in and ability to carry out sexual activity. Your emotional resilience will also be greater if you exercise, which also benefits your relationship health.

12.   Brings about better sleep. Although sleep experts recommend that you not exercise right before you go to bed, exercise during the day benefits your sleep at night. The physical exertion you engage in during the day helps your body’s circadian rhythm keep in tune. Sleeping better at night also improves, in turn, your immune functioning and even lowers your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cognitive impairment. A win-win for sure!

13.   Improves mood. It’s a well-kept secret that people who exercise regularly also have lower risk of depression. Our pill-popping culture tends to emphasize medical interventions for psychological disorders over behavioral treatments. Exercise is one of these behavioral treatments. Aerobic exercise improves your mood by causing your body’s endorphins to kick in. These are the natural “feel good” neurotransmitters that start to exert their effects after about 20 minutes of training. These regular exercise-related boosts eventually improve your overall mental health over the long term.

14.   Lowers anxiety. Related to exercise’s effects on mood are its effects on your levels of anxiety. As your levels of endorphins increase, your feelings of worry also start to diminish. When you exercise, you also refocus your attention from your daily problems to the workout itself. You can gain a fresh perspective on even the most preoccupying concerns in your life by taking an exercise break. When you return to these daily problems, you approach them with renewed energy and even some new ways to figure out solutions.

15.   Feels like fun. If you find the kind of exercise that fits your personality and motivational needs, you can actually have a good time while your body does the work. Some people need to exercise in a group class because they enjoy the social opportunities it provides. Others prefer to have time to themselves away from the stress of work and family. Whatever your exercise style, once you get into a routine, you’ll find that the activity itself becomes rewarding. Perhaps it’s those endorphins or the benefits of social support from your gym-mates. Whatever the cause, long-term exercisers love this natural “high” and wouldn’t give it up for anything. Once you get to that point, exercise enriches the quality of life.

16.   Reduces absenteeism. You may feel like taking time off work to go to the gym is a luxury you can’t afford, but by improving your overall health, exercise can help you ward off both acute and chronic illness. You’ll get fewer colds, be less prone to the flu, and avoid the accidents or surgical interventions that can force you to take prolonged absences. In a tough economy, you need every edge you can get, and by showing up for work every day, you’ll maintain that edge over your absentee-prone non-exercising coworkers.

17.   Boosts memory. The effects of exercise on many of your bodily systems ultimately pays off in improving your cognitive functioning. There are now volumes of studies on humans as well as lab animals showing that regular physical exercise helps your neurons stay in shape particularly in the memory areas of your brain. You don’t even have to exert yourself that much to experience this memory boost. Moderate walking can help your brain’s memory center, the hippocampus, maintain its health and vitality. Memory also benefits from a general lowering of cortisol, the stress hormone, associated with the improved mood and anxiety levels you experience from your regular workouts.

18.   Builds intelligence. Along with memory, your intellectual skills benefit from regular physical activity. It also helps if you can build in some mental activity as well. As oxygen flows more freely to your brain, not only does your hippocampus benefit but so does the part of your brain involved in planning and reasoning (the prefrontal cortex). Mental activity, particularly involvement in exercises that require you to respond quickly, also boosts your intelligence and even your ability to carry out activities of daily living.

19.   Lowers dementia risk. Exercise lowers your chances for developing dementia based on cardiovascular illness because you’re improving the flow of blood throughout your body, including your brain. Because dementia due to cardiovascular disease is hard to distinguish from other forms of dementia, it’s hard to say that exercise could actually slow or prevent the neuron death responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. However, by preserving the neurons in your brain, exercise can give you an added advantage should you develop this otherwise untreatable disease. It’s even possible that exercise can help slow or prevent Alzheimer’s disease by improving your glucose and fat metabolism because some of the brain alterations found in Alzheimer’s disease may be due to abnormalities in these processes. For example, researchers have found recently that lowering a person’s risk for diabetes can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s possible that lack of a healthy lifestyle may have led the illness to develop in many older adult sufferers today. To the extent that middle-agers are now more likely to exercise than were their parents, we may actually see fewer people developing dementia in the coming years.

I hope that before you’ve made it through all 19 of these reasons, you’ve put on your sneakers, gotten out your yoga mat, or decided to call your local gym or YMCA to find out about classes. No matter what your age, exercise can help you achieve greater physical and mental fulfillment. See if you can add to this list of 19 reasons by finding your own personal formula for exercise success!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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