In the September 12 issue of Time Magazine, reporter Mandy Oaklander reminds us that if there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.
So why is it that only 20% of Americans get the recommended 150 minutes of strength and cardiovascular physical activity per week? Why do more than half of all baby boomers report they are doing no exercise whatsoever? How is it that 80.2 million Americans over age 65 are entirely inactive?
“If you think of exercise as a true form of medicine, which it is, it’s not good enough to just look at a patient and say, ‘You need to do more exercise,’”
says Dr. Marcas Bamman, director of the Center for Exercise Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“I always tell people that exercise is regenerative medicine: restoring and repairing and basically fixing things that are broken.”
Oaklander cites evidence that in addition to the heart, muscles, lungs and bones, scientists are finding that another major beneficiary of exercise might be the brain. Recent research links exercise to less depression, better memory and quicker learning. Studies also suggest that exercise is, as of now, the best way to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Most people don’t realize how easy it is to get enough exercise. Mowing the grass, raking leaves, and washing the car are all exercise. Physical activity includes all movement, not just running or pumping iron.
Dr. Robert Sallis, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente in California, has prescribed exercise to his patients since the early 1990s in hopes of doling out less medication.
“It really worked amazingly, particularly in my very sickest patients,” he says. “If I could get them to (be active) on a regular basis — even just walking, anything that got their heart rate up a bit — I would see dramatic improvements in their chronic disease, not to mention all of these other things like depression, anxiety, mood and energy levels.”
For “strength training,” you really only need to use your body weight as resistance according to Anthony Hackney, an exercise physiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That’s why yoga, tai chi and barre work are excellent forms of strength training.
But the most demoralizing error people make is to assume that weight loss is an essential indicator of a successful exercise program. Research consistently indicates that exercise is not an effective way to lose weight.
“Some people say exercise doesn’t do anything,” says researcher John Jakicic of the University of Pittsburgh. “Well, exercise does a lot. It just may not show up on the scale.”
Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, who has been treating kids with severe genetic diseases like muscular dystrophy for more than 25 years, agrees. “I’ve seen all the hype about gene therapy for people with genetic disease,” he says, “but it hasn’t delivered in the 25 years I’ve been doing this. The most effective therapy available to my patients right now is exercise.”