Many people think that the main health benefit of exercise is weight loss. Sure, it helps – but weight loss is not the main reason why you should exercise. The main health benefit of exercise is that exercise will dramatically improve your health throughout your life. In fact, exercise has so many health benefits that the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) declared recently that exercise is a “miracle cure.”
People are constantly speculating about the causes of the rise of obesity and related illnesses such as Type 2 Diabetes and heart diseases. In my opinion, here is the cause, pure and simple:
Sure, the ease of accessing unhealthy junk food must have contributed, but I still think the car is cause #1. Consider this: In 1949, 34% of miles traveled using a mechanical mode were by bicycle; today only 1 to 2% are (AMRC). In the century since Ford started mass production of cars, the amount of walking and cycling that average human beings do has plummeted. That’s why dramatically increasing the amount of exercise you do can help you achieve dramatic weight loss.
Let’s not forget that when we first evolved, we spent all day walking around collecting nuts, fruit and berries. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was incredibly physical, and it would have taken all day to gather or hunt enough food to survive. That’s walking, bending over, and carrying things (including babies) all day long. In fact, one school of thought holds that many of our modern physical characteristics evolved to enable us to do endurance hunting, that is, walking and running all day long to eventually catch an animal that is much faster. (Which some people still do today, notably the San people in the Kalahari desert.)
Now, most of us sit all day in an office, and then sit in a car going home, and then sit and watch TV. Given such a dramatic change in human lifestyles, it’s not exactly astonishing that we have health problems. We simply did not evolve to sit in front of a computer all day.
Exercise is a MIRACLE CURE
The fact that most of us don’t exercise enough (or at all) becomes all the more alarming if you consider the overwhelmingly positive benefits of exercise. I’ve always known that exercise is good for you, but I was still astonished to see what the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has to say about it. To justify their claim that exercise is a miracle cure, they collated a huge amount of international research, and averaged out the findings. So they are not basing their claims on isolated studies, but on a consensus derived from hundreds of international studies.
These are some of their findings:
You Can Be Fat and Fit
First, they note that the benefits of exercise work independently from those of weight change. Increasing fitness works in a different way to reducing fatness – so even people who are overweight can improve their metabolic health by exercising, even if they don’t necessarily lose weight. So the next time you get depressed because you’ve cycled hundreds of miles without losing much weight, remember that you may be the same weight, but you have become much healthier!
Conversely, many people are skinny and unfit. Think of supermodels and actors smoking to keep their weight down. Without exercise, being thin does not guarantee good health.
Exercise has been proven to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by an astonishing 50 to 80%. Overall, 80 to 90% of type 2 diabetes can be prevented by lifestyle changes (mainly good nutrition and exercise).
All studies have shown that exercise caused clear improvements in cardiovascular health and improves life for people with angina. Overall, exercise reduces your risk of death due to heart disease by 31%. It may reduce the risk of developing heart disease by up to 50%.
High Blood Pressure
Regular exercise reduces the risk of ever developing high blood pressure by 52%. It can also improve blood pressure in those who already have high blood pressure. Bear in mind that high blood pressure is the cause of 50% of strokes and 50% of Ischemic heart disease.
Exercise reduces the risk of stroke, or of death from a stroke, by 20 to 40%.
19 international studies show that exercise reduces the risk of colon/bowel cancer by 30 to 50%. This seems to be related to the beneficial effect of exercise on growth factors and insulin resistance.
Exercise reduces the risk of breast cancer by 20 to 30%.
There is also increasing evidence that if you stay active after a cancer diagnosis, you will slow the progression of the disease and live longer. This has been shown most clearly in cases of prostate cancer (patients who exercised had a 57% lower rate of cancer progression).
COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
In general, exercise will improve cardiovascular health and make this disease less likely to develop. For people who already have COPD, exercise will reduce their symptoms (reduce shortness of breath).
Many studies indicate that exercise can be just as effective as medications for treating depression – but with positive side-effects, instead of negative.
Health Benefits of Exercise for Seniors
Exercise also has dramatic benefits for seniors, extending the length of high-quality life.
Physical activity programs for seniors that emphasize balance training, coordination, and muscle strengthening safely, significantly reduce the risk of falls by 30 to 50%. Riding a bike does all of this, in a fun way.
Exercise maintains muscle strength and increases bone mineral density, so that fractures are far less likely if a senior falls. In fact, being physically active during your younger years reduces the risk of a later hip fracture by 35 to 68%. And note that major bone fractures are much more serious for seniors: they are usually followed by disability and then death within a year in seniors.
Case Study that Shows the Health Benefits of Exercise
This is a case study from the AMRC report.
The case study followed two similar patients, Angela and Tracy. The two women saw the same doctor in the same week with similar problems. Both were in their late forties; both worked indoors as office administrators; both were overweight with moderately high blood pressure; both had mild depression; and both had recent worsening of back pain.
The doctor prescribed the same plan for both of them: try to be more active, and avoid long periods of just sitting.
Angela followed the doctor’s suggestion. She started cycling to work, even in the cold, dark months. She had support from her employer and her colleagues to achieve this. Within a year her blood pressure was normal and she had lost some weight. Now she cycles on the weekends with her son and has minimal back pain.
Tracy did not increase her activity. Her back pain got worse and she was off work for several months. This caused her to be even less active, so her back pain got worse. Soon she was finding it too painful to get in and out of a car, so she got a mobility scooter. Then her weight and blood pressure increased, so she went on blood pressure medications. The medications made her feel tired, so she moved even less. Then she fell from the mobility scooter. This fractured her proximal humerus, as the bone had developed osteoporosis from disuse. She had surgery and then months of physiotherapy – and she was not able to work. Three years later she had developed type 2 diabetes.
Exercise is a Miracle Cure – Better than Winning the Lottery!
All in all, there is overwhelming evidence that the best thing you can do for yourself is exercise more. In the long term, this will do you more good than winning a lottery! (How are you going to enjoy those millions in a wheelchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank?) One of the easiest ways to get more exercise is to commit to commuting by bike (at least sometimes), or to set yourself a goal of doing a charity bike ride, and start a training program. So do yourself a favor – get out there and get on your bike!
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