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How Exercise Can Lead to a Lo​nger, Healthier Life


In between all the weight loss and diet advertisements, the real news about Americans’ health doesn’t seem to be improving. Most adults (and an alarming percentage of children) are overweight and unhealthy. However, medical research is proving over and over again that regular exercise is one of the keys to a long, healthy life.

In particular, research continues to show that exercise can slow or even reverse the signs of aging. When you think about it, what causes aging? Most people would say aging is “decay” over time. However, new research seems to indicate that many diseases and signs of aging are actually from “non-use.”

"If you've ever seen someone who recently got a cast off their leg, you may notice that leg is smaller than the other one,” says Patrick Carter, M.D., Chief of Family Medicine at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. “The muscles ‘atrophy,’ or shrink up from not being used. However, if you see that person a year later, the legs’ muscles will probably look similar. The muscle atrophy has been reversed by regular use of the leg muscles."

As it turns out, exercise seems to be able to reverse many signs of aging, not just those related to the bones and muscles you use to exercise. Consider how exercise has been shown to improve the following conditions that typically increase with age.

Heart Disease and Stroke. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure, raises the levels of good cholesterol, and keeps triglyceride levels under control, which can reduce your chances of a heart attack or stroke.

Diabetes. Regular exercise can help improve glucose (blood sugar) regulation, and reduce reliance on insulin and other diabetes medications.

Cancer. Exercise has been shown to reduce the incidence of colon cancer, and some other cancers.

Mental Issues. Exercise helps improve sleep patterns (important for healthy mental function), and reduce stress and anxiety.

So, exactly how does exercise do all this? “The cause appears to go all the way down to the cellular level,” says Dr. Carter. “In many ways, it’s similar to the concept of atrophy. Basically, when cells in your body get exercise, they grow stronger, regenerate better, and help other cells in your body do the same. When they aren’t used, they get weaker, die off, and e​ncourage other cells to do the same.”

But the great news is that it is never too late to get started exercising. No matter how old or out of shape you may be, you may still be able to get the benefits of exercise if you just get up and get moving!

Here are a few ideas to get started:

Try to be more active all day, every day.

Find ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routines.

  • If you are on the phone in your office a lot, try to get a cordless phone and headset, and pace while you are talking.
  • If you take public transportation, consider getting off a stop early and walking the rest of the way to your destination.
  • And the old "standby," take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator

Make family time an active time. If you have children or grandchildren, just try to keep up, and you’ll be getting more exercise in no time.

  • Walk them to the park or to school instead of driving.
  • Splash in the pool or ride bikes with them.
  • Take vacations that include physical activities.

Commit to regular exercise. Once you’ve become more active, it’s time to step it up, so to speak.

  • Try to exercise every day or most days.
  • Aim for 30-60 minutes a day.
  • Cross train, which means rotating your exercises between aerobics (walking, running, swimming), strength training (weight lifting) and flexibility and stretching exercises (yoga, pilates, etc.).

 

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Patrick Carter, MD, MBA, FAAFP

​​I try to have an open, friendly relationship with my patients so that they can feel comfortable asking and telling me anything. I enjoy seeing patients over long periods of time, because I feel a long-term doctor-patient relationship is the best way to give and receive medical care. I also like to laugh and have fun with my patients; I think it often does more good than medications.