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exercise is medicine

Have you ever watched a commercial for a prescription drug?  Sometimes the laundry list of side effects makes me question if the benefit really exceeds the risk for some of them.

Medications definitely have their place. But don’t you wish that someone would create a magic pill that would cure, or at least help to alleviate many of the chronic conditions that we battle today?

And wouldn’t it be even better if it was offered for FREE?

I have a secret that you won’t find broadcasted on television commercials or magazine advertisements… this magic pill already exists.  And you can have it for free with no strings attached.

Exercise. Is. Medicine.

The American College of Sports Medicine has launched a global health initiative called Exercise is Medicine.  The focus is to encourage health care providers to recommend physical activity when designing treatment plans for patients.  According to ACSM, exercise is “integral in the prevention and treatment of diseases and should be treated as a part of all medical care.”

The benefits of exercise are acute (lasting for 12-24 hours after each exercise bout) and chronic (cumulative over time)  (ACSM, 2011).  Exercise improves multiple health outcomes, even in the absence of weight loss.

Check out some of the ways that regular exercise can improve your health:

1) Boost Endothelial Progenitor Cells. Every time you exercise, your body significantly increases the production of Endothelial Progenitor Cells (EPCs).  (Koutroumpi, et al., 2012; Choi, et al., 2014Palmefors, et al.,  2014)  These specialized cells circulate through your blood vessels, attached to sites of injury, and begin to reverse the process of plaque build-up.  Each bout of exercise is like a healing dose of medicine to clean up clogged arteries.

2) Reduce Fats and Cholesterol in the Blood.  High levels of triglycerides (fats) and cholesterol in the blood are associated with increased risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.  A single bout of moderate or vigorous aerobic exercise can lower blood triglycerides and cholesterol for about 12-24 hours (Kim, et al., 2014; Mestek, et al., 2008).  As you can imagine, regular exercise has the greatest impact and can significantly reduce blood triglycerides and cholesterol.

3) Increase Nitric Oxide to Lower Blood Pressure.  Plaque build-up in the arteries causes the endothelial lining of the arteries to become dysfunctional.  For example, healthy arteries have the ability to open and close in order to shunt blood to areas of high and low priority when needed.  Dysfunctional arteries remain constricted unnecessarily.  In fact, they may “paradoxically vasoconstrict.”  This means that when your body needs more oxygen, diseased blood vessels will actually close off to reduce blood flow. Yikes.

Exercise increases blood flow through the arteries and stimulates production of an important vasodilator called  nitric oxide (Phillips, et al., 2014).  Nitric oxide helps the arteries to open up so blood can flow through them freely.  For example, one study suggested that 20 minutes of walking three times per week for eight weeks increased nitric oxide production by 30% and reduced blood pressure by 10-17% (Khalid, et al., 2013)

4) Improve Insulin Sensitivity/ Type 2 Diabetes.  Aerobic exercise uses carbohydrates for fuel which helps to manage blood glucose regulation.  It also improves insulin sensitivity and reduces the risk for type 2 diabetes.

Reduced muscle mass increases the risk for metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.  However, resistance training can help to preserve muscle mass and improve metabolic function (Malik, et al., 2004; Brooks, et al., 2007).  The metabolic improvements associated with exercise may be partly attributed to increased adiponectin (a hormone that improves insulin sensitivity), and decreased inflammatory markers (which decrease insulin sensitivity).

5) Increase Bone Density.  Exercise, particularly impact exercise, stimulates the bone microarchitecture, bone density, and bone strength, which are integral to the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.  Training that improves muscular strength, balance and proprioception (sensing where you are in space) can significantly reduce the risks of falls and fall-related fractures (Moreira, et al. 2014).

6) Prevent Age-Related Loss of Muscle Mass.  Aging is associated with sarcopenia which is characterized by a significant loss of muscle mass, muscle strength, and functional capacity.  Regular exercise, particularly resistance training, can help to preserve muscle mass  (Zembroń-Łacny et al., 2014)

7)  Maintain a Healthy Metabolism and Facilitate Weight Management.  According to the National Weight Control Registry, the majority of individuals who successfully lose weight and keep it off use a combination of healthy eating and exercise to do so (Klem, et al., 2007).

8)  Boost Immunity.  Regular moderate exercise can improve measures of immunity by 15-25%.  For for example, it can affect the number and function of circulating immune cells such as neutrophils, monocytes, and natural killer cells (Walsh, et al., 2011)

9) Improve Cognitive Function.  Executive function refers to a set of mental skills that are coordinated in the brain’s frontal lobe. Research suggests that exercise may improve multiple components of executive function  including working memory, multitasking, selective attention, self-control, and reasoning (Guiney and Machado, 2013).   O’Malley (2011) found that exercise also improves executive function in children which is important for their adaptive behavior and cognitive function.  Exercise may be a particularly valuable treatment tool for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.    It enhances brain development and neurobehavioral functioning in areas of the brain that are believed to be impaired in ADHD (Halperin, et al., 2014).

10) Blunt the Stress Response.  Regular exercisers show lower physiological and psychological responses to daily stressors. For example, one 30 minute bout of aerobic exercise reduced how much of a stress hormone called cortisol was released in times of stress.  (Zschucke, 2015)

11) Improve Depression.  Exercise has been demonstrated to produce moderate clinical improvements in depression that are comparable to pharmacological treatment or psychological therapy (Cooney, 2013).  Archer, et al. ( 2014) have reported that exercise may play a preventative role in anxiety and depressive states, improve self-esteem, improve sleep disturbances, and improve chronic aches and pains.

12) Improve Pain from Arthritis. Reduced muscle mass and muscle strength may increase the risk for osteoarthritis (Slemenda, 1998).  This is because strong muscles help to reduce the load on the joints.  Resistance training can also help to reduce the pain and disability associated with existing osteoarthritis (Bischoff, et al., 2003)

13) Decrease Systemic Inflammation. Low-grade systemic inflammation has been associated with several chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.  Regular moderate exercise decreases C-Reactive Protein which is a marker of inflammation (Chen, et al., 2014; Pedersen, 2006)

14)  Increase Antioxidant Enzyme Systems.  You may be aware that antioxidants in foods can be beneficial for health.  But what you may not know is that exercise boosts antioxidant function also.  Antioxidant enzymes systems help to dismantle harmful free radicals and turn them into less harmful substances such as water and oxygen.  You can increase your body’s internal antioxidant enzyme systems by exercising. For example, exercise increases the activity of the antioxidant enzyme systems superoxide dismutase (Power, et al., 1993) and glutathione peroxidase (Bouzid, 2014).  These systems help to defend your body against free radicals, chronic disease, and the aging process.

15) Improve Activities of Daily Living and Overall Quality of Life. Exercise is associated with higher levels of physical function and improves activities of daily living, especially in older adults (Diepetro, 1996).  Regular exercisers frequently report improved feelings of “energy” and improved quality of life when compared with non-exercisers.

It bears repeating.  Exercise truly is medicine.

Edward Stanley had it right in his famous Earl of Derby speech in 1873.  “Those who think that they do not have time for exercise will sooner or later have to make time for illness.”


Pictured above:  former FIT Rx trainer Molly Makela pursuing lifelong fitness in the beautiful Moab, Utah.