Fall is an invigorating time of year for many people. Even if you are not into fitness, it is a good time to start a plan. Walking in crisp fresh air, surrounded by evolving brilliant foliage colors, can help stimulate daily activity that will generate better health in years to come.
A recently published medical study noted advanced planning can change the course of your life. Americans are living longer, but not always better. Our current life expectancy is seventy-eight, but with longer life more people are dealing with chronic diseases. So, the goal should be to begin modifying your risk base as soon as possible. Developing fitness in middle age, even if exercise was never a priority for you, reshapes your personal health landscape and can make later years more vibrant.
In the longitudinal study of 18,000 people beginning in 1970, most of those who were the least fit at the time of their middle-aged checkup, had developed some of the following conditions early in the aging process: dementia, diabetes, heart disease and colon or lung cancer. Those who were most fit in their forties and fifties typically did not develop chronic illnesses until the final five years of their lives, instead of 10-20 years earlier like the less physically fit individuals.
So if you look at the big picture, exercise is beneficial in delaying illness and living well in later years. Longevity without dementia is determined by genetics, fitness and staying involved mentally and socially. Even walking half an hour a day can improve your health.
An article reviewing 45 studies, examining physical activity in people with cancer published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute this year, emphasized the benefits of exercise. There was a decrease in all-cause mortality, including cancer-related death. Many of the studies examined involved women with breast cancer. With exercise, there are improved insulin levels, reduced inflammation and an increase in cells known to attack tumors.
Muscle cells strengthen with exercise. Balance improves. But another important benefit is better blood flow to organs including the brain. In an animal study published in the journal Learning and Memory, fit animals not only showed improved memory, they generated new neurons in areas of the brain involved with learning.
We all have many excuses for not being able to exercise. However, if you evaluate your interests and abilities, usually there is something to do to remain active, even if you have physical problems that interfere. Water exercises for individuals with joint and balance problems can increase muscle strength and be relaxing, too. If you have joint or back problems, consider riding a stationary bicycle for non-weight-bearing activity. Talk with your physician. Maybe a consultation with a physical therapist could set you on a course to improve muscle conditioning and your overall health.
If you say, “I’m too tired to exercise” consider this: studies have found exercise energized people, even those undergoing cancer treatments. Remember, exercise doesn’t have to be vigorous. Just taking a slow walk outdoors in the fall sunshine can brighten your day, increase bone-density to ward off osteoporosis, strengthen your muscles and help you live a longer healthier life.
Betty Kuffel, MD