The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

What Is the Best Medicine for Your Well-Being?

Aerobic exercise is the best medicine for physical and mental well-being.

Hippocrates—who is considered by many to be the father of modern medicine—said famously, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Over two millennia later, a new study from Australia reaffirms that exercise is the best medicine for mental and physical well-being.

Although walking is always going to improve your physical and mental well-being, there is one caveat... the latest findings from the Australian study suggest that slightly boosting your exertion level increases the benefits of aerobic exercise. A brisk walk is better for you than sauntering.

The July 2014 study, “Can Physical Activity Prevent Physical and Cognitive Decline in Postmenopausal Women?” was published in the journal Maturitas, which compiled five years of research on the impact of aerobic exercise on mental and physical health in women over the age of 50.

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Regular aerobic exercise benefits people of all ages, genders, and walks of life. This study focused particularly on women over 50 and found that moderate to high intensity activity reduces the risk of death in older women.

A 2009 study found that men who regularly take part in moderate-to-high intensity exercise such as jogging, tennis or swimming were less likely to have a stroke than men who didn’t exercise or only did light exercise, such as walking slowly, golfing, or bowling.

The Australian researchers from Queensland University of Technology emphasize that clinicians shouldn’t just prescribe medications for mental and physical treatments, they should also prescribe tailored exercise programs, especially for their older patients.

In a press release, co-author Debra Anderson said, "Studies clearly show moderate to vigorous intensity activity can have mental and physical health benefits, particularly when part of broader positive health change. What we are saying is that high-intensity exercise is not only good for your physical health but also your brain health. Doctors should be developing exercise programs that are home-based and easy to incorporate as part of everyday activities.”

Conclusion: What Is a Tonic Level of Aerobic Exercise?

The traditional belief has been that 30 minutes of mild exercise most days of the week is enough to improve health. This still holds true, but for optimal benefits you should try to kick it up a notch for at least part of your workout.

When you are walking, jogging, biking, or riding the elliptical ask yourself, “How hard does this level of exertion feel to me?” Then attach a rating to that pace and feeling of exertion.

When rating your perceived exertion, I find it helpful to use three color coded tiers: 1. Mild (Yellow) 2. Moderate (Orange) 3. High (Red). High intensity exercise should make you huff and puff and feel like you are red-lining it. Moderate and mild exercise can be done at a comfortable yellow or orange zone also known as a “conversational pace.”

Any type of aerobic movement is going to benefit your health. A little exercise is always better than none. That said, the latest research shows specifically that older women should be doing at least 30-45 minutes five times a week of moderate to high intensity exercise. Moderate to high intensity exercise can significantly reduce your risk of death.

The authors conclude that doctors should be developing exercise programs that don't require joining a gym and are easy to incorporate as part of a patient's daily routine. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Photos: Flickr/Labeled for Reuse

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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