Is physical activity as effective as medicine?
In this article, we’ll reveal the effect physical activity has on your health, and how it could help you live longer.
If we were to analyse the research behind common health treatments, we’d find that exercise can be as effective as taking medication – particularly for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Physical activity can also reduce your risk of many other diseases, including prostate and breast cancers, dementia and brain strokes.
As we review the clinical literature, we can find that no sweaty lycra is needed. Doing housework, gardening, walking and cycling more briskly, will help achieve your recommended minimum 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity. And improving muscle strength can include everyday tasks, such as carrying shopping, on at least two days a week.
The evidence also shows that sitting idle can significantly reduce the benefits of any exercise. Aim to stand up for 10 minutes of each hour you’re sitting down.
Did you know? Office workers would burn an extra 30,000 calories a year by spending 3 hours a day standing up!
No matter your age or fitness level, these activities can help you get in shape and lower your risk for disease:
1. Water sports
You might call swimming the perfect workout. The buoyancy of the water supports your body and takes the strain off painful joints so you can move them more fluidly. “Swimming is good for individuals with arthritis because it’s less weight-bearing,” explains Dr. I-Min Lee, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Research finds that swimming can improve your mental state and put you in a better mood. Water aerobics is another option. These classes help you burn calories and tone up.
2. Tai Chi
Tai chi — a Chinese martial art that incorporates movement and relaxation — is good for both body and mind. In fact, it’s been called “meditation in motion.” Tai chi is made up of a series of graceful movements, one transitioning smoothly into the next. Because the classes are offered at various levels, tai chi is accessible, and valuable, for people of all ages and fitness levels. “It’s particularly good for older people because balance is an important component of fitness, and balance is something we lose as we get older,” Dr. Lee says.
3. Strength training
If you believe that strength training is a macho, brawny activity, think again. Lifting light weights won’t bulk up your muscles, but it will keep them strong. “If you don’t use muscles, they will lose their strength over time,” Dr. Lee says.
Muscle also helps burn calories. “The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, so it’s easier to maintain your weight,” says Dr. Lee.
Did you know? Strength training might also help preserve your ability to remember!
4. Brisk walking
Walking is simple, yet powerful. It can help you stay trim, improve cholesterol levels, strengthen bones, keep blood pressure in check, lift your mood, and lower your risk for a number of diseases (diabetes and heart disease, for example). A number of studies have shown that walking and other physical activities can improve memory and resist age-related memory loss.
All you need is a well-fitting and supportive pair of shoes. Start with walking for about 10-15 minutes at a time. Over time you can start to walk farther and faster until you’re walking for 30 to 60 minutes on most days of the week.
On the mat or with advanced machines, these exercises will help you with chronic joint and back pain and also strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that support the bladder. Strong pelvic floor muscles can go a long way toward preventing incontinence. While many women are familiar with Pilates, these exercises can benefit men too.
Did you know? Joseph Pilates came up with this system to help rehabilitate injured war soldiers in hospital beds by creatively taking springs from the beds and attaching them to the headboards and footboards of the iron bed frames, turning them into the first models of the equipment that we see today!
6. Fun – and work!
Many of the things we do for fun (and work) count as exercise. Gardening, cleaning your house, cycling to work, using the stairs and walking your dog all count as physical activity. So does dancing and playing with children. Harvard Medical School suggests that as long as you’re moving for at least 150 minutes a week, and you include two days of strength activities a week, such as carrying your shopping, you can consider yourself an “active” person!
Whilst medicine is there to help you, there’s a growing body of scientific research that movement can make you healthier and happier.
* Data sources: Harvard Medical School, Jan 2014. Which, Jan-Feb 2014. Experts: Prof Carol Brayne, Dr David Broom, Dr John Buckley, Dr James Cave, Dr Christine CLar, Prof Jan Clarkson, Prof Edzard Ernst, Dr Dominic Hurst, Dr Thomas Lamont, Dr Anne Mackie, Dr Margaret McCartney and Dr Chris Parker.