If you’re trying to lose weight, there’s no doubt about it: Changing your diet is more important than exercising. (That’s the topic of one of my favorite mythbusters, in fact.) But does that mean you should skip exercising altogether? Absolutely not — considering exercise reduces chronic disease and can sometimes even replace some medications.
While working out might not be the No. 1 factor in shedding pounds, it’s vital for so much more than weight loss. Not only do the benefits of exercise include feeling happier and boosting energy levels, but it’s a proven way to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and cancer — who doesn’t want that?
It’s amazing that at a time when so many gadgets, devices, medications and drugs are available, one of the best ways to reduce the risk of chronic diseases is still totally all-natural, free and available to most of us.
Don’t miss out on your very own “miracle cure” — get out there and exercise!
How Exercise Reduces Chronic Disease
It’s now generally accepted that lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, today chronic diseases are the most common, expensive and, critically, the most preventable of all health problems.
In fact, heart disease and cancer, both considered chronic diseases, accounted for 48 percent of all deaths in the United States in 2010.
Studies show that the fact that there is way too much sitting in our lives and we’re more sedentary than ever before doesn’t help. This can lead to accumulation of intra-abdominal fat (or visceral fat) which is dangerous when it comes to disease risk.
Which common diseases can be eliminated or prevented through physical activity? There’s evidence suggesting that diseases that can be prevented by exercise include:
- Heart disease and markers, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance
- Depression and anxiety
- Neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia
- Joint pain/arthritis
- Renal failure
- Mobility impairments
What are the negative effects of lack of exercise?
As a 2017 report published by the American Physiology Society explains:
physical inactivity, itself, often plays an independent role as a direct cause of speeding the losses of cardiovascular and strength fitness, shortening of healthspan, and lowering of the age for the onset of the first chronic disease, which in turn decreases quality of life, increases health care costs, and accelerates mortality risk.
A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to health problems including:
- reduced gray matter in the brain
- increased depression and anxiety
- loss of strength and mobility
- impaired immune function
- worsened heart health
As explained by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson’s Prevention Center, “exercise reduces overall body fat and hidden intra-abdominal fat, the most dangerous type of fat.” Recent studies have linked this type of fat to cancer and other chronic diseases not only in women, but in men as well.
Even if those who exercise regularly don’t see dramatic weight loss, prevention of intra-abdominal is a key way in which exercise fights disease and a reason why exercise reduces chronic disease risk.
Benefits of Exercise for Fighting Disease
There are numerous reasons why physical activity boosts overall health. Here are some of the many ways in which staying active protects both your mental and physical health:
- Gets your blood flowing— For starters, your body demands glucose, or stored sugar, to give it energy. It also requires adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, to keep going. Because our bodies store limited amounts of both, we need more oxygen to create more ATP. More blood starts flowing to your muscles to provide them with the oxygen boost they need.
- Circulates more oxygen— To get oxygen circulating, your heart rate quickens, enabling your body to circulate blood more quickly and efficiently where it’s needed. Because the human body is awesome, the more you exercise, the better your heart becomes at getting that oxygen around speedily. Keep at it and you’ll notice that an exercise that once wiped you out is now a lot easier — plus, your resting heart rate will go down.
- Improves your mood and attention — With all that blood swirling around, some of it is sure to go to your head. That’s actually a good thing. It gets your brain cells fired up, making you feel more energized and alert while also protecting the brain against inflammation.
- Gives you more energy — You know how you might be exhausted before starting a workout and by the end, you’re feeling pretty peppy? Thank your brain for that. It also releases neurotransmitters like endorphins and serotonin, giving you that post-workout high.
In a 2015 report, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, a consortium of 21 medical institutions in the United Kingdom and Ireland, called exercise a “miracle cure.”
How can exercise treat diseases? Below is more about some of the ways in which exercise reduces chronic disease:
1. Fights Heart Disease
One of the most obvious places exercise reduces chronic disease is in this category.
Heart disease is one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in America. In fact, 610,000 people die annually in the U.S. from heart disease — that’s one in four and second only to cancer.
It’s the leading cause of death for nearly every ethnicity in the country, too.
One 2018 study found that the number of adults with dyslipidemia, hypertension and diabetes who adhere to the physical activity recommendations is very low. This is a shame considering that exercise fights heart disease in a variety of ways.
We usually hear how bad cholesterol is — but why do our bodies need cholesterol? The good kind is critical for proper neurological function, repairing scar tissue and regulating hormones.
As your body becomes more adept at circulating blood, you’ll enjoy improved circulation. That means a reduced risk of blood clots, which often lead to strokes or heart attacks.
2. Defends Against Diabetes
In 2012, 9.3 percent of Americans were living with diabetes — that’s 29.1 million people.
Evidence suggests that there’s a positive link between diabetes and exercise. Exercise can actually play a major role in both preventing and managing diabetes.
Staying active allows your blood sugar to stabilize and assists insulin in absorbing glucose. Because muscles use glucose more effectively than fat does, working out regularly prevents high blood sugar levels, which is what actually causes diabetes.
Exercise also improves circulation, reduces bad cholesterol levels and alleviates stress, all of which can increase glucose levels. Additionally, studies have demonstrated that diabetic, cardiac and cancer patients have reduced hospital admissions, improved diabetic control and improved quality of life scores when following a healthy diet and exercise program.
3. Helps Prevent Musculoskeletal Diseases
Musculoskeletal diseases are a fancy way of saying diseases affecting the joints, skeleton and muscles, like arthritis or osteoporosis. Because exercising puts extra weight on your joints, conventional thinking assumes that it would actually lead to more joint-related diseases, not less.
Finally, it increases stability which is beneficial or preventing falls and injuries.
4. Boosts Brain Health
Perhaps one of the biggest ways that exercise reduces chronic disease is by improving brain health. This has a chain reaction on the body.
Exercising also stimulates chemicals in the brain that affect the growth of brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus. This is the part of your brain that’s mostly responsible for memory and is most likely to decline as you age, which can lead to dementia.
The more you exercise, the more of these chemicals you produce.
Research also shows that regular physical activity like exercise improves the integrity of white matter in the brain. White matter is linked to quicker neural conduction among regions of the brain and higher cognitive performance.
Disease like multiple sclerosis, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases are affected by a deterioration or changes in white matter.
5. Defends Against Certain Types of Cancer
A recent study conducted by the National Cancer Institute pooled together data of nearly 1.5 million people ranging in age from 19 to 98 years old in both the U.S. and Europe. This gave researchers the the ability to study people with many different cancers — not just the common ones, but also some rarer forms.
How do we explain the connection between exercise and cancer? For people who already have cancer, exercising when possible can improve physical condition, strengthening the body to better withstand treatment.
It can also improve one’s mood, help increase appetite, aid with sleep and support a healthier immune system.
Consult with your doctors to choose the best type based on your treatment plan and situation.
Is exercising better than drugs or medication?
Many experts now believe that exercise can be a very effective way of preventing chronic diseases and reducing symptoms. It might even lead to reducing or eliminating prescription medications.
Ideally, work with a doctor who takes a holistic approach to your health before eliminating any prescribed drugs or courses of medication. Don’t be afraid to look around until you find the right doctor.
Some, for instance, might even prescribe exercise as a therapy, considering exercise reduces chronic disease risk.
How Much Exercise Do You Need?
Now that you know how and why exercise reduces chronic disease risk, let’s talk about how much adults require to reap these benefits.
Are you worried you’ll need to go from couch potato to marathoner? Not so fast! You don’t actually need a crazy amount of exercise to reap all the health benefits.
For most adults, the American Heart Association recommends about 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three to four times a week (or at least 150 minutes total perk week). This is believed to be enough to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Remember, that’s 40 minutes total of accumulative exercise— you can split it anyway you’d like. Ideally you’ll do a combination of aerobic exercise and strength-training each week.
Compared to adults, children are encouraged to get at least 60 minutes (one hour) or more of physical activity each day to maintain their health.
Aerobic Exercise Recommendations:
Aerobic activity (or “cardio” as it’s sometimes called) is considered moderate or vigorous intensity activity that gets you breathing harder and your heart beating faster. Examples include running, cycling, fast walking and CrossFit workouts.
Turning to high-intensity interval training workouts is a terrific option. HIIT workouts beat conventional cardio by delivering the same physical benefits in a shorter amount of time, usually 20–30 minutes.
These workouts involve alternating exercising at high levels of intensity with exercising at a less intense level for short periods of time. If you have a difficult time making time for exercise, HIIT and tabata workouts can easily be squeezed into your day.
However, it’s OK if HIIT is not your thing. The key is finding out what is.
If you love to cycle but want to do it in the comfort of your home (and if it’s within your budget), consider checking out and investing in a Peloton bike.
HIIT-style workouts may be too tough for older adults or those who are ill, so gentler exercise would be more appropriate in this case. If you enjoy swimming, hit the local pool a few times a week, or take your dog on a brisk walk after dinner
A 2019 report published in Frontiers in Physiology states, “there is an emerging body of evidence showing that resistance exercise training appears to be as effective as aerobic training in reducing risk of several chronic diseases.” Resistance training seems to be especially helpful for mitigating risk of mobility disabilities in older adults.
Strength training is considered all muscle-building workouts that work most of your body’s major muscle groups, such as your legs, hips, back, chest, abs, shoulders and arms. Examples include using free weights, doing movements like squats and lunges, using elastic bands, or lifting your own body weight.
You can even do vinyasa yoga classes or a fun group fitness workout involving props like blocks, weights and bands.
It’s best to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise weekly, plus muscle-building exercise for an additional 10 to 20 minutes several times per week. The CDC recommends that adults do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.
Risks and Side Effects
While recent studies have revealed that exercise is generally safe for people of all ages, even those with pre-existing conditions like heart disease and cancer, it may need to be modified depending on the persona’s abilities.
For many people who are already suffering from certain condition, especially older adults, vigorous exercises might not be an option. If you’re experiencing serious pain, fatigue or other ailments from chronic disease, getting out of bed might be an achievement, never mind running miles at the gym.
If that’s the case, don’t give up on exercise. Work with your doctor or physical therapist to design a program you can do.
Can’t walk a mile? Try walking around the block.
Tai chi can be a good way to tap in to the mind-body connection even with limited mobility, too.
Keep an eye on how you feel as you ease into exercise. Slow down if you experience dizziness, unusual shortness of breath, chest pains or an irregular heartbeat.
Overall, remember that anything is better than nothing, and finding a workout you enjoy will ensure you keep at it regularly. The opportunities are endless!
- Hundreds of studies show that regular exercise can cut your disease risk. What can exercise prevent? Some conditions it helps defend against include heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, depression and arthritis.
- Exercising regularly is preventative medicine if you don’t already have a chronic disease. It is also a proven way of managing or reducing symptoms, such as instability, pain, asthma and weakness.
- Some of the key ways exercise reduces chronic disease risk is by reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure, protecting brain cells, reducing visceral fat and weight gain, and improving insulin sensitivity.
- Adults need a total of at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, plus muscle-building exercises for about 20 minutes at least two times weekly.