Friday, 24 September 2021
FORGET pills, staying active is the best medication.
In the tropical temperatures we’ve been experiencing, I’m quite aware that the idea of heading out to take part in any form of exercise may be less than appealing.
Setting that aside, however, when it comes to staying healthy there is almost nothing else that comes near it in terms of effectiveness.
There is a quote from a health promotion consultant called Dr Nick Cavill that seems to pop up more and more regularly these days: “If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented.”
When you look at the statistics, it is difficult to disagree.
There is strong evidence to suggest that appropriate exercise reduces the risk of the following conditions by the following percentages:
Coronary artery disease and stroke — 35 per cent
Type 2 diabetes — 50 per cent
Colon cancer — 50 per cent
Breast cancer — 20 per cent
Osteoarthritis — 83 per cent
Depression — 30 per cent
Dementia — 30 per cent
Hip fractures — 68 per cent
Falls in older adults — 30 per cent.
These are not insignificant numbers. Exercise really is good stuff and also helps with self-esteem, sleep quality and energy levels. The Government’s aim is for everyone to be doing around 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week.
Moderate exercise is something that essentially causes you to breathe faster, increase your heart rate and feel warmer — a good way to gauge it is if you are breathing too heavily to sing the words to a song. Examples might be going for a brisk walk or hike or playing a game of volleyball.
Only half of us in the UK are reaching that target. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to consider the effect on the incidence of all of the conditions above if all of us matched this target.
It goes deeper than this though. We are a species that evolved as hunter-gatherers, constantly on the move, but in a world with televisions and remote controls, motorised vehicles and robots that do your vacuuming for you, it comes as no surprise that we are suffering from the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
As such, even if we are reaching our exercise targets, if we spend the rest of the time sitting or lying down (and the average person in the UK sits for seven hours a day, 10 hours if you’re over 65 years old) then those benefits are lost or at least have less impact on the risk of adverse health conditions.
It is therefore key for us to move about every now and again even if we’re not exercising.
The recommendation is that every half an hour we should get up and move about for two to three minutes. This may seem difficult but is it really? Sometimes only the smallest things need adjusting to achieve this, whether it be getting up and walking around the office once in a while or maybe even (as horrifying as this sounds) keeping the remote by the television instead of next to us on the sofa.
Essentially we’ve all got a bit lazy and our bodies are experiencing the consequences.
For those thinking “well, my knee hurts too much for me to do any exercise” or “the swimming pool/tennis court/bowling green is too far away”, I’m afraid that’s no excuse.
Remember, moderate aerobic exercise is anything that gets you breathing and increases your heart rate, so if your knee hurts do some swimming or even some armchair aerobics.
Likewise, if you can’t get to your local sports centre easily, go for a brisk walk down the road or around the garden for 30 minutes every day. There is a mode of exercise for almost everyone.
Why does exercise and activity help? Recent research has revealed quite in-depth benefits of which we were previously unaware.
Much of this has to do with the anti-inflammatory effects of activity. At the cellular level, our bodies are in constant turnover. Most cells in our bodies contain structures called mitochondria which are essentially mini power plants.
It is here that we produce energy to be used in various processes throughout the body. Each mitochondrion builds up a charge and if we are not using energy it stays charged.
The longer it does, the more bits of charge escape in the form of “free radicals”. These free radicals are bad news and contribute to cell and mitochondrial damage, aiding the ageing process and generally making us less healthy.
It is thought that this process causes microscopic inflammation throughout the body.
Activity and exercise help by utilising this energy and thus reducing the release of free radicals. They also aid the production of anti-inflammatory substances from muscle that help to counter inflammation at a cellular level.
That is not to mention their effect in increasing insulin sensitivity of cells, reducing the risk of conditions like diabetes, along with strengthening heart muscle to reduce average heart rates and contributing to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
There is a lot of focus these days on weight loss when it comes to exercise. This is quite a damaging concept and is reinforced by many commercial diet plans and courses.
Although it is important to maintain a good weight and avoid obesity, weight loss is not the be all and end all.
There are two types of fat. Subcutaneous fat (sub — beneath; cutaneous — skin) is the stuff that pads out our waist-
lines and is the most visible.
However, arguably far more important is the fat that surrounds organs like the liver and the heart.
This is called visceral fat (viscera means “the internal organs” in Latin) and its build-up has significant implications for our general health.
Even if our exercise seems to be doing nothing to our subcutaneous fat, it will be having far greater effects on our visceral fat and this is very important.
Therefore we mustn’t equate the success of our exercise or indeed any form of activity with weight loss. Fit and fat is better than unfit and thin. If you are struggling to think of ways you might stay active, there are lots of resources at hand.
Go Active, Get Healthy: A scheme that provides all sorts of activities and sessions to help people with diabetes stay active. www.getoxfordreactive.org.uk
Couch to 5km: A way gradually to increase exercise levels. See the “live well” section of www.nhs.uk
www.generationgames.org.uk: Part of Age UK and runs all sorts of sessions for all abilities.
In addition to all this, there is a new walking group that meets in Henley market place every Tuesday at midday for patients of the Hart and Bell surgeries.
It is free and is for all abilities. Aside from providing an opportunity for exercise, it is also a great social activity.
Just look out for someone in a high-visibility jacket and don’t worry about being left behind as a leader will stay with the slower members of the group.
Hopefully, if this is successful, there will be longer and more varied walks planned as part
of the wider www.walkingforhealth.org.uk organisation that runs similar schemes all over the country.
So the next time someone advises exercise in the name of health, this will give you that added impetus to make a change. After all, it’s really not just one of those things we say — it really does work.
06 August 2018
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