By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine
The older I get, the less I like those infomercial exercise zealots with their bulging biceps and skin-tight leotards. Not that I have anything against them personally. But workout programs that emphasize six-pack abs and buns of steel miss the main point of adopting an exercise routine.
In my perfect world, the fitness industry would focus less on looks and more on the health benefits of exercise. Regular physical activity supports virtually every system in your body, from your bones and muscles to your heart and cardiovascular system. Exercise improves immune function, aids digestion and elimination, increases endurance and energy, and enhances mood. And exercise is your best weapon against chronic disease. In fact, some anti-aging specialists say that, for every hour of exercise, there is a two-hour increase in longevity.
Recent findings by researchers at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, found that people who routinely exercise catch 25 percent fewer colds. Another study found that middle-aged men who get more than three hours of exercise a week can cut their risk of developing insulin resistance, the metabolic syndrome that often precedes type 2 diabetes and heart disease, by half. When it comes to protecting your heart, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have discovered that exercise helps reduce inflammation inside the blood vessels. Of the nearly 14,000 adults participating in the study, those who exercised the most had the lowest blood concentrations of C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP, a compound used to measure inflammation in the body, has recently been identified as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Exercise, it seems, can also make you smarter, according to Arthur F. Kramer, Ph.D., a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now, the idea that fitness improves cognition isn’t new. Animal studies have found that aerobic exercise boosts cellular and molecular components of the brain, and exercise has improved problem-solving and other cognitive abilities in older people. But Kramer’s study is the first to show anatomical differences in gray and white matter between physically fit and less fit aging humans. Kramer and his team discovered, after evaluating the brain scans from 55 volunteers over the age of 55, that exercise actually produces differences in three areas of the brain: the frontal, temporal and parietal cortexes.
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But perhaps the most immediate benefit you’ll notice is a feeling of well-being. Individuals who engage in regular exercise report better concentration and significant reductions in anxiety and depression, says Elizabeth Doyne, Ph.D., clinical professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Most experts believe that exercise releases endorphins – the body’s own “feel good” chemical – which boosts the brain’s seratonin level. More importantly, numerous studies show that regular exercise is necessary to independent living, especially as we age.
The Three Faces of Exercise
But taking an occasional walk around the block won’t produce these kinds of results. The key is to incorporate 30 to 60 minutes of exercise into your routine at least five days a week. And vary your activity. Achieving optimal physical fitness involves three fundamentals, according to the American Council on Exercise: cardiovascular workouts, flexibility training and strength training.
Since, cardiovascular workouts, better known as aerobics, improve cardiovascular fitness and stamina, I’ve always included them in my workout. But now there’s even more good news on the aerobics front. It seems that that aerobics can act like a drug on your blood vessels by reducing inflammation. According to a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Medicine and Engineering, when you exercise you force blood through your blood vessels. This elevated blood flow stresses the walls of the vessels as it passes over them, reducing inflammation in a way similar to high doses of steroids. But wait, there’s more. In another study, researchers have found that regular aerobic exercise not only helps you lose visible body fat, it also reduces the fat you can’t see – fat buried deep in your gut that contributes to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. In the study, conducted by doctors at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, 173 overweight women either participated in 45 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week or practiced gentle stretching just once a week. Those who exercised dropped up to 6.9 percent of their intra-abdominal fat, while the women who only limbered up actually gained a small amount of visceral fat.
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Aerobic exercise can also protect your colon. A recent study of 75,000 Norwegians showed that those who walked or cycled at least four hours a week had a significantly decreased risk of colon cancer. And a recent Harvard study indicated that people with the highest level of physical activity had half the incidence of colon cancer than those who exercised the least. The nice thing about aerobics is that many of the activities you already do can be counted as a workout including walking, gardening, raking or mowing the yard, hiking, bicycling, lap swimming, jogging and singles tennis.
Weight-bearing, or strength exercises have taken center stage lately because they are an excellent way to prevent osteoporosis. But researchers are now confirming that postmenopausal women who start strength training can halt – and even reverse – the breakdown of their bones. Here’s another reason to pump iron: according to researchers from Melbourne’s International Diabetes Institute, people suffering from type-2 diabetes can lower their blood glucose levels by embarking on a routine weightlifting program. The study found that, after just three months, participants had improved their blood glucose control by 7 percent. Better yet, this effect was doubled in six months.
The final element of a healthy workout is often an afterthought. But stretching offers a number of benefits, particularly as we age. Studies have shown that stretching increases flexibility and range of motion. In one study of 24 volunteers, researchers found that stretching was significantly more effective at increasing range of motion than running. Stretching also reduces lower back pain and improves circulation, balance, posture and mood. In a pilot study of 11 elderly women participating in a tai chi class, the scientists discovered that the slow, stretching exercises not only increased flexibility and balance, they improved the women’s mood and overall quality of life. And, unlike aerobics and weight training, stretching doesn’t require any special equipment or clothing. But it’s a good idea to learn the proper way to stretch. Yoga, Pilates or tai chi classes can teach you the basics and help you avoid over-extending your muscles.
One Last Thing …
When it comes to finding the time for fitness, give yourself some latitude. Instead of spending hours at the gym, work in 10 minutes of exercise at least three times a day. According to fitness experts, breaking up your workout is just as good as a 30-minute session. So spend a few minutes on a stationary bike, dance to a favorite song on the radio or mow the lawn. If you’ve been leading a mostly sedentary life, start slowly and check with your physician if you have a health condition that might be aggravated by exercise.
Bonaiuti D, et al. “Exercise for preventing and treating osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2002;(3):CD000333.
Church TS, et al. “Associations between cardiorespiratory fitness and C-reactive protein in men.” Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology. 2002; 22:1869-1876.
Kahara T, et al. “PPARgamma gene polymorphism is associated with exercise-mediated changes of insulin resistance in healthy men.” Metabolism. 2003; 52:209-212.
Kramer AF, et al. “Effects of aerobic fitness training on human cortical function: a proposal.” Journal of Molecular Neuroscience. 2002;19: 227-231.
McNair PJ, et al. “Effect of passive stretching and jobbing on the series elastic muscle stiffness and range of motion of the ankle joint.” British Journal of Sports Medicine. 1996; 30: 313-317.