To enjoy a long and healthy life, everyone should make lifestyle choices that include a healthy diet, regular exercise, and maintaining normal weight. The combination of inactivity and eating the wrong foods is the second most common preventable cause of death in the United States (smoking is the first).
Most research on the benefits of exercise focuses on heart protection. Studies clearly show that exercise helps the heart. In addition, studies are reporting that even people with heart disease may gain important benefits from exercising, though they need medical clearance and special precautions.
Evidence suggests that our genes evolved to favor exercise. In other words, during prehistoric times, if a person couldn't move quickly and wasn't strong, that person died. Those who were fit survived to reproduce and pass on their "fitter" genes. Some researchers believe that with our current inactive lifestyle, these genes produce a number of bad effects, which can lead to many chronic illnesses.
The benefits of exercise include:
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular (heart) disease, high blood pressure, and stroke
- Decreased risk of colon and breast cancers
- Decreased risk of diabetes
- Decreased risk of osteoporosis
- Decreased risk of depression and dementia
- Decreased body fat
- Improved metabolic processes -- the way the body breaks down and builds necessary substances
- Improved movement of joints and muscles
- Improved oxygen delivery throughout the body
- Improved sense of well-being
- Improved strength and endurance
In addition, exercise can help change other dangerous lifestyle habits. A 2007 review of existing studies found that moderate exercise, for as little as 5 minutes at a time, can help combat the nicotine withdrawal symptoms people have when they try to stop smoking.
No one is too young or too old to exercise. The United States Surgeon General recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, nearly every day. However, vigorous exercise carries risks that people should discuss with a doctor. You should always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program, especially if you have any of the following risk factors:
- A symptom you have never told your doctor about
- Arthritis of the hips or knees
- Blood clots
- Chest pain
- Chronic lung disease
- Eye injury or recent eye surgery
- Family history of a cardiovascular disease
- Foot or ankle sores that won't heal
- Heart disease
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- History of smoking
- Joint swelling
- Pain or trouble walking after a fall
- Shortness of breath
Fifty percent of all people who begin a vigorous training program drop out within a year. The key to reaching and maintaining physical fitness is to find activities that are exciting, challenging, and satisfying.