What if I could actually give you a key to a longer, healthier, and happier life? What if you could decrease your joint pain, improve your memory, lower your blood pressure, and more? If this sounds like the beginning of an infomercial or an attempt to sell you the latest and greatest supplement, it isn’t. The truth is, there will never be any nutrient or herb this powerful, regardless of what tropical island it comes from. But, we do know the key to better health, and you don’t even need me… or anyone else.
You’ve probably guessed this magical key by now: exercise. Our awareness of the vast benefits of exercise is not new, but as the years progress, the research into these benefits becomes even more impressive and precise. Just this year, studies have confirmed the benefits of exercise in more detail than ever before.
Research into physical activity now greatly surpasses run-of-the-mill studies highlighting weight loss or even cardiovascular health and perhaps the most exciting new studies are related to longevity gained by increasing physical activity. A study published in Preventive Medicine out of Brigham Young University, revealed a key difference in aging between an exercising study group and a sedentary one. Specifically, they looked at the DNA in cells to determine telomere length. Telomeres are a protein portion of our chromosomes. They are at least one component of our biological clock and are highly correlated with age; each time a cell replicates, we lose a tiny bit of telomere length. Therefore, the older we get, the shorter our telomeres. You may have already guessed the findings, which show that people who have consistently high levels of physical activity have significantly longer telomeres than those who led sedentary lifestyles. This particular study examined a group of consistent,high-level exercisers, but the moral of the story is that we are starting to figure out ways to separate your biological age from your actual age… and exercise is proving to be an effective way of doing so.
Recent studies have uncovered explanations for memory improvements associated with exercise. Researchers studied the amount of a metabolite called choline produced in the brains of older adults who were exercising compared with those who were sedentary. As expected, physical activity influenced brain metabolism. The concentration of choline often rises as a result of the increased loss of nerve cells, which typically occurs in dementia and Alzheimer’s. As you might have guessed, physical activity led to stable cerebral choline concentrations in the training group, whereas choline levels increased in the control group, signifying a decreased rate of loss of nervous cells in those who were active.
This association with memory improvement is not new, and in fact in a large analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers analyzed data from 39 studies, specifically of people 50 and older comparing those completing aerobic exercise, anaerobic (weight training), a combination of the two, or no exercise. All studies measured the effects of exercise on cognition, including attention, memory, and task completion (maintaining focus). Compared with non-exercisers, cognitive function improved in those who did either type of exercise, or combination of the two, when compared to the sedentary groups, regardless of cognitive function when they began. Whether memory risk is high due to family history or symptoms are already present, increasing your activity can slow the progression of these devastating diseases.
New research also furthers evidence for reductions in sleep apnea related to exercise. Sleep apnea is a common problem that involves disrupted breathing during sleep. It has been associated with increased cardiovascular risk and memory disturbance. Exercise alone decreased apnea by 25% in just a 12-week period, and with low to moderate amounts of activity. Exercise also decreased restless leg syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system, which causes sleep disrupting sensations in the legs or arms. The most encouraging part of this study was the fact that participants only added light exercise to their routines, such as walking, to gain these life-improving benefits.
Exercise can also effectively improve your mood and decrease depression, anxiety, and stress by altering levels or improving response to hormones such as serotonin and norepinephrine, both of which decrease depression and improve mood. Studies dating many years back equate the efficacy of exercise with that of our strongest anti-depressants at improving mood. Yoga, specifically, has even been shown to decrease post traumatic stress disorder and associated symptoms.
If these recent affirmations of associations with a longer, healthier, and happier life don’t convince you to begin or improve your exercise regime, keep in mind these were all highlights of recent work. For many years now, exercise has also been shown to decrease blood pressure, improve cancer outcomes, build stronger muscles and bones, and decrease the risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Exercise reduces chronic disease, improves libido, and decreases chronic pain. And this is still not an exhaustive list.
There is no magic pill or potion for optimal health or longevity. There is nothing you can take with such confidence that it will increase your years or your healthy years. But, there is something that you can do. You don’t need to become a competitive athlete. Most studies outline a moderate amount of exercise at about 2.5 hours per week, and you should strive for a combination of aerobic, resistance, and yoga or stretching to gain each of their specific and combined benefits. Remember, however, that even if you have limitations, small amounts of exercise will improve your health. So get out there and move for that healthy, happy, and long life!
Stay healthy & be well!
—Amy Whittington, NMD