It’s time to take our medicine—Part 2: Fitness benefits

Mature fit African American man running outside.

Image: digitalskillet1/Bigstock.com

When it comes to exercise, anything is better than nothing. The more you do, the greater the benefits—and the benefits build up over time.

That’s the message from Professor Robin Daly, the Chair in Exercise and Ageing within the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University, Melbourne.

He believes that it’s helpful to look upon exercise as medicine and is attempting to educate medical professionals in this exercise-is-medicine approach. He likes to talk about medical personnel ‘prescribing’ exercises to counter disease.

On exercise, he says, ‘We often hear of physical activity guidelines where people say you should do 30 minutes most days a week, and that sort of thing. However, for many people who currently do nothing, going to 30 minutes, five days a week can be unachievable.

‘Just going from nothing to doing something brings the greatest health benefits.’

The benefits impact positively on ‘pretty much every physiological system in the body’. And, he adds, it can be helpful for preventing disease or for those who have a disease. Also, there’s no age limit. Those who are ‘very, very old, up to 100’ can still benefit from being regularly active.

Problems brought by a sedentary life

Sedentary behaviour or too much sitting has now been linked to most common chronic diseases, says Daly. He points to the worst-case scenario where an individual is bedridden. That’s when the loss of muscle is quite dramatic.

‘People could lose 3-5% of their muscle in the first week or two if they’re bed-ridden or immobilised.’ This is equivalent to around 2 years of muscle loss that typically occurs with normal ageing.

He and his colleagues have been studying the effects of sedentary behaviour or too much sitting in middle-aged and older people. In one study, they had a group of people come in to sit all day. Every now and again some were told to get up and do some simple exercises for a few minutes and then to sit down again.

‘The exercises were either light walking or muscle-strengthening activities. The benefits of breaking up their sitting bouts with simple bouts of exercise for a few minutes on their blood glucose levels was quite remarkable.’

From studies like these, he strongly recommends avoiding long periods of sitting and suggests regular standing or walking times to break up sitting time. Sedentary behaviour can be dangerous, with its links to obesity and Type 2 diabetes, but also other diseases such as cancer.

Like exercise, movement is medicine and so we need to move.

Checking your fitness levels

There is overwhelming evidence that your fitness level is a strong predictor of mortality—how long you will live. However, an assessment of fitness is not part of usual clinical practice.

It’s common for people to get health checks in their 50s and 60s. Daly notes that this is usually limited to such things as cholesterol and blood pressure. His suggestion is to try to have your fitness level assessed as well. In fact, he’s keen to see fitness assessments become commonplace.

He and his team have been talking to GPs and health professionals asking, ‘How could we implement a simple fitness test that you could do or a nurse could do working with the doctor?’

You can check your own fitness. There are simple online tests available if you’d like to try them. And your doctor may be able to recommend some tests.

There’s also a new breed of health professionals—exercise physiologists—who can help you. While fairly new on the scene, they’re becoming more in demand in hospitals, clinics, and rehab centres.

‘Exercise physiologists are highly trained and skilled health professionals who can assess your health/fitness status and give you high levels of advice on what exercise to do,’ says Daly. And that advice is to help you counter any fitness weaknesses. ‘To get the best benefits, what you need to do has to be prescribed appropriately.’

Yes, there is a cost—isn’t there always?—but a referral by a doctor may help cover some of the cost.

Typically, for 50- and 60-year-olds, the exercises will mean aerobic activity supplemented by strengthening exercises. But with a proper exercise prescription, you can target your weaknesses. 

Thinking about dying

People die in different ways. Daly puts it this way: ‘There are those who live long, healthy lives. They’ll be active and will just drop off the cliff, so to speak.’

Although there are no guarantees in life, those who exercise are more likely to have that type of death.

In contrast, he says, ‘Most people are active and then some event happens—a heart attack, stroke, injury or fracture—and they become inactive. They recover enough to be a little bit active again for a while, but then there’s a slow decline.

‘Then, if there’s another event, they’re often on the road to a slow, painful death.’

To counter that he comes back to exercise—with healthy eating. Together, they tend to bring a healthier and longer life and lessen the likelihood of a lingering death.

It’s worth the effort to get it right.

This is the second of four posts from an extended interview with Robin Daly from the Faculty of Health at Deakin University.

Bruce Manners is the author of Retirement Ready? and Refusing to Retire, and founder of RetireNotes.com

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