The Physical Benefits of Exercise in Making More Health and Longevity

Over the past fifty years, scientists have provided plenty of evidence that the benefits of exercise are important, even crucial, for good health. Although physical activity can reduce your risk of many illnesses, its most important impact is on cardiovascular disease. Even modest exercise, puts stress on nearly every part of your body, it shouldn't scare you away from exercise. In fact, if the stress of exercise is applied properly, nearly every part of your body will respond by growing stronger and healthier. The result is true fitness. It's not measured by how fast you can run, how much you can lift, or how big your biceps are. Instead, real fitness is measured by how well your body can withstand stress of all sorts: the stress of exercise, the stress of disease, the psychosocial stresses of twenty-first-century life, and even the stress of the aging process.

Exercise can make you fit and healthy. The trick is to know how to exercise properly and then to make it part of your daily life. And the way to start is by understanding how exercise affects your body. Even the most committed couch potato has sprinted to catch a bus or an elevator, and all of us can remember how it feels to exercise. Physical exertion makes your heart beat faster and harder. Your breathing also gets faster and deeper. If you're at it long enough, your skin will get flushed, warm, and damp with perspiration. Your muscles will be taut from effort, and they may ache and stiffen up for some time afterward. If you are really pushing yourself, you may notice some nausea, abdominal discomfort, or lightheadedness, and you might enjoy high spirits right after you come to a stop, only to feel tired, sleepy, or a bit grumpy later in the day.

You don't have to be an exercise physiologist to know that exercise makes your heart, lungs, and muscles work harder or that your metabolism speeds up, producing extra heat. But even though an occasional burst of exercise may enable you to catch a bus or enjoy a sporting afternoon with the kids, it won't do much for your health. For fitness and health, sporadic exercise won't do—but regular exercise will do very nicely indeed. The body responds to the stress of habitual exercise with a remarkable series of adaptations that are collectively known as the training effect. Hippocrates didn't have the benefit of modern exercise physiology, but the Father of Medicine seems to have predicted the training effect some twenty-four hundred years ago when he wrote "that which is used, develops; that which is not used, wastes away." Regular exercise will produce long-term changes in many of your body's organs and functions. But at the heart of your improvement is your heart itself.

Obviously everyone desires to live long, but no man would be old. The clock ticks for all living things, and with each tick, things change. Exercise can't stop the clock, much less turn back its hands—but it can slow the tick and keep people healthy and vigorous, with the physiological capacities of much younger individuals. Exercise should help keep you young for your age. But does it actually work? The researchers had tested the men before and after exercise, finding devastating changes that included faster resting heart rates, higher systolic blood pressures, a drop in the heart's maximum pumping capacity, a rise in body fat, and a fall in muscle strength.

Vigor and health are wonderful, wonderful things, but longevity doesn't hurt, either. Cicero again: "No one is so old that he does not think he could live another year. Regular exercise prolongs life, according to the calculations of scientist, each mile you walk as part of a regular exercise program will extend your life by twenty-one minutes; these data even tell us that you'll gain about two hours of life expectancy for each hour of regular exercise, even if you don't start until middle age.

Scientists have gathered facts by evaluating elderly men in Hawaii, Seventh-Day Adventists in California, male and female residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, Harvard alumni, elderly American women, British joggers, middle-aged Englishmen, retired Dutchmen, and residents of Copenhagen—among others. Although the details vary, the bottom line is remarkably uniform: regular exercise prolongs life and reduces the burden of disease and disability in old age. In reviewing the data, Dr. J. Michael McGinnis of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion concludes that regular physical activity appears to reduce the overall mortality rate by more than a quarter and to increase the life expectancy by more than two years compared with the sedentary population's average.
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