why to exercise today


Even In Your 20s, Fitness Cuts Risk For Later Heart Disease, Major Study Finds

(Elaine Thompson/AP)

(Elaine Thompson/AP)

Feeling a bit bloated and sluggish after Thanksgiving weekend? A major study just out in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine offers an added nudge to get back on the exercise wagon. How fit you are even in your 20s, the study finds, can dramatically affect your risk of heart disease and death well into middle age.

So dramatically, in fact, that every minute matters.

Imagine you’re doing a stress test on a treadmill. Every two minutes, the machine makes you go faster and at a steeper incline. The first few minutes are no sweat — you’re walking, then trotting, then jogging — but soon you start to suck air, and finally hit the point that you can bear no more. (Or you may reach the 18-minute maximum, if you’re superhuman.)

Say you did that test in your 20s. Now fast-forward 25 years. The study found that every extra minute you could last on the treadmill meant you were at a 15 percent lower risk of death over that quarter-century, and at a 12 percent lower risk of harmful effects of heart disease, including stroke and heart attack.

“That’s a lot,” I found myself saying in a phone interview with the study’s two lead authors, Dr. Ravi V. Shah, of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Dr. Venk Murthy of the University of Michigan.

“We were surprised too,” Dr. Shah said.

“Two, three, four, five minute differences are not uncommon,” Dr. Murthy said. “That adds up. That’s 15 percent per minute — it’s pretty substantial.”

Though, of course, it must be noted that the overall risk of heart disease and death are relatively low in such a young population. Among the 4,872 people in the study, 273 died, but 200 of those deaths had no relation to heart disease. And just 4 percent of the study’s subjects had a “cardiovascular event” like a heart attack.

Still, the results cast new light on just how much fitness matters for heart health — even in our 20s, when many of us can still get away with a sleepless all-nighter or an all-weekend TV binge.

This new research is the first large study to examine people in their 20s onward over such a long period, the lead authors say, and underscores the importance of starting good fitness habits early — not just in later years, when the health price of inactivity is already well known.

The study also found that the heart benefits of fitness held true independent of weight and other heart risk factors. That suggests, Dr. Shah said, that “being fit is important for everyone, not just for people who are trying to lose or maintain weight.”

The study — an epic endeavor that began back in the mid-1980s and was led by four universities, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins — also suggests that early trajectory matters. That is, typical as it may be, it is not a good idea to let your fitness decline in your 20s.

Nearly 2,500 of the subjects underwent a second treadmill test just seven years after the first. For every minute less that they could last compared with their first test, their risk of death in the coming years went up by 21 percent, and their risk of heart disease by 20 percent.

And one other, particularly fascinating finding: Fitness as reflected by treadmill performance did not seem to matter for an accepted measure of heart health, the accumulation of calcium deposits in the arteries that supply the heart. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today, Men: Daily Half Hour May Slash Odds of Erectile Dysfunction

(Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Flickr/Creative Commons)

You’d expect exercise to be good for erections, wouldn’t you? We know working out is good for blood vessels, and erections do involve blood flow.

But a recent study in nearly 700 men aimed to quantify the erectile benefits of exercise better by measuring physical activity, and the numbers are striking: The “brief communication” in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reports that “for every 30 minutes/day increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, participants had a 43% reduced odds of having erectile dysfunction.”

Quite a drop. And it fits with previous findings that exercise can make a real dent in impotence. From the paper:

For example, a recent prospective study examining various risk factors for Erectile Dysfunction determined that a variety of exercise modalities all resulted in reduced relative risk for Erectile Dysfunction. In this study, running 2.5 hours/week (150 minutes of MVPA) resulted in a 30% reduced risk for ED and running 1.5 hours/week resulted in a 20% reduced risk. Another study demonstrated a positive association between low Physical Activity levels and ED (40–60%increased odds with low PA levels).

I asked Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, director of Men’s Health Boston and author, most recently, of “The Truth About Men and Sex: Intimate Secrets From the Doctor’s Office,” how exercise could have this dramatic effect on erectile function. His emailed reply:

“It’s tempting to attribute cause and effect to studies, but it can be challenging to know whether exercise reduced ED rates, or whether men who exercise have lower rates of ED for other reasons, for example, they might be healthier in the first place. Nonetheless, the benefits of exercise are real. It is one of the best “drugs” that could ever be invented. If the gym isn’t your cup of tea, go for a walk. Now. Your body will thank you.”


The Key To Gardening Without Blowing Out Your Back? It’s Not What You Think

Say you love gardening, like Boston-based landscape designer Barbara Quartier in the video above. Say you, like her, find that your happy toil is tinged with dread, with the foreknowledge that one of these days, you’ll be pulling at a recalcitrant weed or hefting a heavy pot and boing: There goes your back. Or your knee. Or your neck. But you get carried away in the absorbing process of earthly beautification. You take chances you know you shouldn’t. What’s a gardener to do?

I asked Dr. Sharon Bassi of New England Baptist Hospital, which specializes in orthopedics and spine care, and she responded with evidence- and experience-based wisdom that diverges surprisingly from the usual folk wisdom. You know the usual maxims: Above all, bend your knees when you lift. Avoid prolonged repetitive movement without breaks. Know your weight limits.

All good pointers, Dr. Bassi says, but her central message, based on research and countless encounters with injured patients, is this: Strengthen your core, particularly your back muscles. Studies and experience suggest that matters more than specific postures.

Her advice, lightly edited:

“Many people feel that they have to lift a certain way or bend a certain way or not carry excess amounts of loads. But the reality is that it’s different for each individual, and a lot depends on how strong you are at baseline. One of the key pieces of our bodies that we fail to strengthen is the spine.

We talk about core strengthening a lot, about getting the abdominal muscles strong. But in parallel, the muscles that are less often talked about are the para-spinal muscles, and there are many of them: There are very tiny ones that hold the joints together, and there are larger ones that really help stabilize your back. And those are the muscles that we need to focus on a lot. In people who present with back strain or pain, we talk about core but we talk equally about getting the para-spinals in the back very, very strong, because that’s what helps holds you erect, that’s what helps to prevent sprain and strain injuries.

It’s especially important in people who are doing prolonged periods of gardening, or any type of prolonged activity — almost every activity involves your spine to a certain degree — that in parallel, those individuals strengthen those two key components. That will help prevent a lot of injuries and allow you to do almost anything in any comfortable posture and lift many pounds of weight without worrying about injuring your back.

So I think this whole notion of correct biomechanics — like bending from the knees — is really a little bit over-rated, and a little bit over-talked-about. We see plenty of people who have injuries having lifted in what is considered an ergonomically correct posture. And we don’t have great studies that show that by lifting in that manner you’re going to prevent an injury. We have more studies telling us that if we strengthen, that we can pretty much lift however we want, however it feels comfortable, because we will inherently be engaging the right muscles.”

(Here both Barbara Quartier — who goes by Barbara Peterson in her landscape design business — and I expressed some shock. We’d heard forever about bending our knees, but never a word about our para-spinals.)

“It really is a common misbelief,” Dr. Bassi responded. “We see patients who say, ‘I knew I lifted this wrong, and that’s why this happened,’ but that’s not necessarily true.”

So the question instantly arises, of course: How to strengthen those para-spinal muscles? Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Because It’s Not Sitting

If you’re like me, this bout of November weather in June provides yet another excuse to ratchet back your exercise regime. And that means more sitting. Do not give in. Here, two more reports underscore the perils of sitting, one from the U.K. and one out of New York City.

In the U.K., sedentary behavior “now occupies around 60% of people’s total waking hours in the general population, and over 70% in those with a high risk of chronic disease. For those working in offices, 65–75% of their working hours are spent sitting,” according a new study published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.



To try to get workers off their bums, public health experts issued a consensus statement urging periodic stand-up breaks during the day.

According to the panel backing the new recommendations:

…for those occupations which are predominantly desk-based, workers should aim to initially progress towards accumulating 2 hours a day of standing and light activity (light walking) during working hours, eventually progressing to a total accumulation of 4 hours a day… To achieve this, seated-based work should be regularly broken up with standing-based work, the use of sit–stand desks, or the taking of short active standing breaks.

Along with other health promotion goals (improved nutrition, reducing alcohol, smoking and stress), companies should also promote among their staff that prolonged sitting, aggregated from work and in leisure time, may significantly and independently increase the risk of cardiometabolic diseases and premature mortality.

Even New Yorkers, who live in one of the best walking cities on the planet, are sitting far longer than what’s considered healthy, according to a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers at New York University, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

Researchers found great differences among various demographics — surprisingly, higher income folks spent more time sitting compared to those with lower incomes. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Researcher Says It May Slow Tumors



This just in from Runner’s World: “Exercise Fights Cancer Tumors Directly.”

A heartening headline, no? A great many caveats are surely in order — the eternal “rats are not humans,” in particular — but the piece describes interesting research suggesting that, to anthropomorphize a bit, tumors don’t like it when we exercise. From Runner’s World:

Kansas State University exercise physiologist Brad Behnke has been studying prostate-cancer tumor growth in rats that either exercise or are sedentary. As with humans, rats divert blood flow to the muscles when exercising. The result, in Behnke’s research to date, is a 200 percent increase in tumor blood flow during exercise.

That sounds like it could be a bad thing, at least if more blood flow “fed” tumor growth, and accelerated metastasis (spread of the disease to other organs). However, the opposite is what occurs, according to Behnke.

“When a tumor lacks oxygen, it releases just about every growth factor you can think of, which often results in metastasis,” he explained to Runner’s World Newswire by email. “Simply speaking, the tumor says, ‘I can’t breathe here, so let’s pick up and move somewhere else in the body.’”

When a tumor is bathed in oxygen, on the other hand, its activity tends to slow. In an earlier paper, Behnke demonstrated a 90 percent decrease in “tumor hypoxia” (low oxygen) among rats that engaged in long-term, moderate-intensity treadmill exercise. “As far as I know, this is the largest reduction in tumor hypoxia of any intervention, including drugs,” he said. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Train Now To Shovel More Safely Next Winter

By Rick Discipio
Guest contributor

Over 100 inches of snow fell in the Boston area this past winter, and tons of the heavy, wet stuff had to be shoveled out of driveways and walkways — not just a pain in the neck, but a potential pain in many other parts of the body as well.

Nationwide, an average of 11,500 snow shoveling injuries occur annually, including damage to muscles, ligaments, tendons and other soft tissues. Lower back injuries are the most common.

So what can you do to avoid injury in winters to come if, as some predict, heavy snow becomes more common? To handle the stresses that snow-shoveling places on the body, you need a year-round exercise program. Consult with your doctor before undertaking any exercise program, of course, but here are my starter suggestions:

Begin with a basic total-body strength training program two or three times a week. Improving your strength will make daily routines (such as shoveling) less taxing and help with injury prevention. Strength training is any type of resistance training that includes free-weights, tubing or strength machines. The focus should be on strengthening the legs, hips, shoulders, abs, and lower back.

Basic strength training routine: Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: For Long-Term Weight, It May Matter More Than Diet


The usual wisdom goes: You really need to be active for your health, but you can’t count on exercise as a weight-loss method. Some people even gain weight when they ramp up exercise — and not just muscle mass.

But if you look at the big picture and the long haul, people who succeed at long-term weight loss tend to have high levels of physical activity. Now a new study of more than 5,000 Americans in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise finds a strikingly strong link between exercise and weight — arguably stronger than the link to diet.

The American College of Sports Medicine offers this summary:

The study found that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was significantly associated with two measures of weight status – body mass index and waist circumference.
For both men and women and in all age groups, higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity were associated with lower BMI and smaller waist circumference.
The associations of diet quality with weight status were much less consistent; higher diet quality was associated with lower weight variables in only a few gender and age groups.

Which groups? From the paper’s abstract: “Diet quality was inversely associated with the weight status variables only in men age 30–39, 40–49 (BMI only), and 50–59 and women age 50–59.”

And of course, if you’re in one of those cohorts now, you won’t be forever. More from the summary:

“The study also found that, as age increased, physical activity declined, diet improved, and BMI and waist circumference increased.”

In other words, even as we get more virtuous in our diets, we tend to exercise less and gain weight. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: It Could Help Your Partner Exercise, Too

(Lucky_sunny, Flickr via Compfight)

(Lucky_sunny, Flickr via Compfight)

Even if you’ve never heard of Nicholas Christakis and his splashy research on how our social networks affect our health, it’s simple common sense: We’re influenced by the people around us, and we influence them back.

Now, a new study presented at a medical conference even quantifies that influence a bit, among spouses. It found that over several years, physically active wives led to fitter husbands, and — to a somewhat lesser extent — active husbands led to fitter wives. From the press release:

The researchers examined records from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study, which in 1987 began following a group of 15,792 middle-aged adults from communities in Maryland, North Carolina, Minnesota and Mississippi. [Laura Cobb, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health doctoral student and co-author of the research] and her colleagues analyzed data from two medical visits conducted roughly six years apart, beginning between 1987 and 1989. At each visit, the researchers asked 3,261 spouse pairs about their physical activity levels.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults should exercise at a moderate intensity for a minimum of 150 minutes per week or at a vigorous intensity for at least 75 minutes per week. Forty-five percent of husbands and 33 percent of wives in the study group met these recommendations at the first visit.

They found that when a wife met recommended levels of exercise at the first visit, her husband was 70 percent more likely to meet those levels at subsequent visits than those whose wives were less physically active. When a husband met recommended exercise levels, his wife was 40 percent more likely to meet the levels at follow-up visits.

Bottom line: “Your exercise regimen isn’t just good for you; it may also be good for your spouse.” The study was presented earlier this month at the American Heart Association’s EPI/Lifestyle 2015 Scientific Sessions in Baltimore.

Why To Exercise Today: Protection (In Mice) From Diabetes Effect On Heart

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 10.33.10 AM

You’ve probably seen those scary maps showing a wave of obesity engulfing the country over the last generation, as state after state converts to more-overweight-than-not. The map above comes from a similar animation, only the wave is diabetes. Watch the states turn alarming colors over time here.

For many of us as we age, Type 2 diabetes is not so much a question of “if” as “when.” So even if you don’t have diabetes now, here’s a bit more inspiration to help fend it off with exercise: Researchers report that — in mice, at least — exercise appears to protect powerfully against a potentially fatal heart complication of diabetes.

The complication is called diabetic cardiomyopathy, and it can lead to heart failure. It may not be first on your list of fears (especially if you’ve never heard of it before, as I hadn’t), but these new findings serve as yet another demonstration of the countless ways that exercise may defend you against health harms.  From the University of Virginia Health System’s press release:

“This is a proof of concept. It shows that an antioxidant coming from skeletal muscle that can be induced by exercise training can provide profound protection against an important detrimental disease condition,” said UVA researcher Zhen Yan, PhD. “The implication is if we can come up with a strategy to promote [this effect] in people who are vulnerable to, or already developing, diabetes, that could prevent the development of diabetic cardiomyopathy.”

Yan and his team used genetically modified mice to show that enhancing the production of a molecule called EcSOD – which is produced in skeletal muscle and promoted by regular exercise – would prevent the damaging effects of diabetic cardiomyopathy. These effects include stiffening and enlargement of the heart, which can lead to heart failure.

While the work amplified the expression of the molecule to levels beyond what normal exercise would produce, Yan said it’s an important demonstration of the concrete benefits of regular exercise in people. “Our studies show that even as little as two weeks of exercise could significantly elevate the level in the blood and the heart,” he said.

Yan says he’s also hoping to develop a pill that could help patients who can’t exercise, or boost the effect in people who can. Ah, yes, the eternal search for the exercise pill. Don’t hold your breath — better to huff and puff instead.

Why To Exercise Today: Breaking Down Your Kynurenine Could Fight Depression

(eccampbell via Compfight)

(eccampbell via Compfight)

Never heard of kynurenine? Me neither, until I read today’s Phys Ed column in The New York Times: How Exercise May Protect Against Depression.

It describes a recent mouse study in the journal Cell that puts forth a new theory for the power of exercise to fight depression. You may be familiar with the longer-standing wisdom that exercise spurs the birth of new neurons in the brain, which also somehow lifts mood. But Phys Ed columnist Gretchen Reynolds writes that the key to the effect may lie in the working muscles, which then affect the brain.

She describes a fascinating experiment in specially bred mice with high levels of PGC-1alpha1, an enzyme thought to guard against depression. The scientists came to focus on kynurenine, a chemical whose levels in the blood rise after stress.

Kynurenine can pass the blood-brain barrier and, in animal studies, has been shown to cause damaging inflammation in the brain, leading, it is thought, to depression.
But in the mice with high levels of PGC-1alpha1, the kynurenine produced by stress was set upon almost immediately by another protein expressed in response to signals from the PGC-1alpha1. This protein changed the kynurenine, breaking it into its component parts, which, interestingly, could not pass the blood-brain barrier. In effect, the extra PGC-1alpha1 had called up guards that defused the threat to the animals’ brains and mood from frequent stress.

Initial studies suggest something similar may happen in humans; more research is under way.