Imagine a pill that helps you lose weight, exchanges fat for muscle, strengthens your bones, fortifies your immune system, prevents heart disease, cancer and stroke, relieves stress, improves your mood, helps you sleep, boosts your brain power, keeps you looking younger, and significantly extends your life.
You can stop imaging now. There isn’t any such pill. (If there were, I’m confident you would have heard about it.)
But the good news is you can get this cornucopia of benefits – and more – from 20 minutes of daily exercise. And the only side effects here are good ones.
It’s hardly breaking news that physical activity is good for you. However, scientists are discovering that exercise is far more beneficial than we previously realized – and also learning just how unhealthy a sedentary lifestyle is.
Despite the powerful new evidence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently collected survey data from more than 450,000 adults across all 50 states and found that nearly 80% of Americans do not get the recommended amounts of exercise each week, setting themselves up for years of health problems – and fueling a national healthcare crisis.
It’s a shame, really. Exercise slows or reverses muscle loss, weight gain, artery hardening, joint stiffening… even glaucoma. Regular physical activity cuts your lifetime risk for general dementia in half. (It even lowers your odds of getting Alzheimer’s by almost 60%.) It also makes you smarter. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in reasoning, attention, long-term memory and problem-solving tasks.
In A Short Guide to a Long Life, Dr. David B. Agus, one of the world’s leading cancer researchers, writes "There are 100 billion neurons in each of our brains, and they love a good physical workout. Studies now show older people who still do vigorous exercise, play competitive sports, or just walk several times a week protect their brains’ white matter from shrinking."
Physical activity is an effective antidote for anxiety and depression, as well. My colleague Dr. Joel Wade, a practicing psychologist and life coach, recently told me, "When I have a client who’s feeling down, the first thing I tell him or her to do is get outside and get moving."
From an evolutionary perspective, we were made to exercise. Anthropologists say our ancestors on the plains of the Serengeti covered a lot of ground, walking as much as 12 miles a day. Homo sapiens left Africa 100,000 years ago and reached the tip of Argentina 12,000 years ago.
Why were we moving so far and so rapidly? We needed to find new food sources, avoid predators, and escape enemies, problems that don’t particularly trouble us today. Yet our brains – and our bodies – still crave exercise.
Everything from diabetes, high blood pressure and heart attack to cataracts, arthritis and macular degeneration can be reduced as much as 70% with exercise.
It’s OK if you don’t have a lot of time – or stamina. Research shows that all the mortality reductions are due to the first 20 minutes of activity. On the other hand, you may be on your way to a lifetime of enviable fitness if you exercise more.
Those who are sedentary now stand to gain the most. Benefits rise sharply when you begin exercising, level off as you do more and, at some point, begin dropping if you overdo things and risk injury. However, the risks of doing too much pale in comparison to the benefits of doing a little more.
Every bit of exercise helps. But here are the national exercise guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services:
-li>150 minutes (2 ½ hours) of moderate aerobic activity each week, such as brisk walking or lap swimming.
-75 minutes a week of more vigorous aerobic activity, such as running.
-Weight training at least twice a week, to ensure that both bones and muscles are healthy.
The inexorable loss of muscle mass that begins in our 40s is called sarcopenia. Over time, it robs us of independence, of the life we want to live. But weight training combats sarcopenia, changing the dynamics of aging.
Of course it is aerobic fitness, not strength training, that is most closely tied to all the health benefits. And there are many…
In Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?, Dr. Alex Hutchinson writes that "the constant tug of stronger muscles on your skeleton results in stronger bones; your heart literally grows bigger in order to pump more oxygen-rich blood to hard-working muscles; you develop an extensive network of capillaries to distribute that blood; the nerves that carry commands from your brain to your muscles learn to do so more quickly and efficiently… and the increased flow of blood and growth factors to the brain during exercise has dramatic effects, boosting memory and learning, enhancing cognition, and warding off the effects of aging. Exercise also stimulates the release of powerful mood-altering chemicals like endorphins, so much so that some researchers argue that it can become a mild addiction."
You don’t need fancy equipment or an expensive gym membership. Just a pair of comfortable shoes. Aside from walking or running, you can use your body’s own mass for strength training – doing push-ups, pull-ups, squats or planks – anywhere at any time, with all the same cellular benefits of formal weights or Nautilus machines.
In short, physical activity is the best, easiest and cheapest way to decrease your mortality risk and increase your life span. It is also the most powerful anti-aging tactic we’ve got.
Combined with a plant-based, whole foods diet, exercise is the closest thing we have to a magic bullet to dramatically improve your health.