The evidence is compelling: Exercise is the prescription for a healthy life – it aids in the prevention of chronic disease, enhances brain and nervous system function, and helps us manage stress at every age. Exercise is so potent for our well-being that many medical organizations are educating physicians about the proper type and frequency of exercise for people who are in good health, as well as those managing chronic health conditions. Here’s what the latest research tells us about exercise as medicine.
The data on the benefits of exercise is drawn from a variety of short and long-term studies, both with mice and human participants. Human studies included athletes, healthy adults and those with genetic, chronic, or acute health problems. Two things are clear: First, people with low levels of physical activity are at higher risk for disease, including different types of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and early death by any cause. Second, throughout life, inactivity can worsen arthritis symptoms, increase lower-back pain, trigger depression and anxiety, and contribute to stress-related illness.
Research shows that many positive changes occur throughout the body during and immediately after exercise. These changes often have a cumulative effect – the more consistently you exercise, the more efficient, healthy, stronger, and resilient the body becomes. The same goes for the brain. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, helps build new blood vessels and neural connections, and has been shown to enhance memory and learning.
How much exercise? The current general recommendation is for a total of 150 minutes per week of physical activity to include two days of strength training (about 30 minutes per session) and cardiovascular exercise on the other days. Strength training can include weight training, of course, but also yoga, Pilates, exercise with bands, and some aquatic classes. Cardiovascular, or aerobic exercise is continuous movement that gets your breathing rate up and causes you to break a sweat.
How long to exercise? Typically, people exercise for 30-50 minutes per session. New research shows that even a 10-minute bout of high intensity interval training (HIIT) done consistently can bring about health benefits. The intervals consist of 20-seconds of all-out, hard-as-you-can-go bouts of movement followed by brief recoveries. If you are willing and able to push really hard in those short bouts, and do these sessions one to three times per day, a few days a week (depending on your goals), you can reap the benefits that often come with longer bouts of exercise.
What if I have a health condition? Many people with health conditions can partake in bouts of supervised intense exercise – at the level of intensity appropriate for them. Even after heart surgery, patients are encouraged to get out of bed and walk. Speak with your health practitioner about what is appropriate for your medical and wellness needs.
As you can see, the benefits of exercise go far beyond managing a healthy weight. Your health practitioner can guide you on starting the right type of exercise program for your health goals. Your doctor may even partner with a physical therapist, exercise specialist, or fitness trainer to help patients get started.