Exercise: Sharpens the brain, reduces the pain, and prevents disease
Exercise may be the closest thing to a universal cure. There is a large and growing body of research suggesting that exercise improves brain health and cognitive function, reduces pain, and helps to prevent disease. However, only 15% of Americans regularly engage in vigorous exercise and 60% of Americans admit to getting no exercise at all. Let’s survey several reasons why you should consider making exercise part of your routine.
Cancer and cardiovascular disease are the two biggest killers in the United States and exercise reduces the risk of both. The National Cancer Institute reports that exercise may significantly reduce the risk of various individual cancers such as colon cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer and lung cancer. Thirty minutes of exercise per day may decrease your overall risk of cancer by 50%, according to the Journal of Nutrition. The American Heart Association confirms that “being physically active is important to prevent heart disease and stroke”; toward that end, guidelines for exercise frequency, duration and intensity are offered at www.heart.org.
Exercise also helps protect brain health and even build brain mass. The journal, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, has reported that exercise improves executive function (i.e. problem-solving, reasoning, planning, decision-making, etc.), multi-tasking and working memory. Newsweek magazine has reported that exercise improves “not just executive function, but a broad variety of skills ranging from math to logic to reading.”
Patients with pain (especially chronic pain) are often counseled to avoid exercise. However, generally speaking, that is bad advice. For example, exercise can reduce the pain and disability associated with degenerative arthritis (also known as osteoarthritis). Both aerobic exercise and resistance training (i.e. weight lifting, exercise bands, Nautilus equipment, etc.) can elicit this positive outcome. Exercise also brightens the mental outlook of arthritic patients; research subjects reported improved quality of life as a result of exercise.
Back pain sufferers also benefit from exercise. Years ago, it was common for back pain sufferers to be prescribed extended periods of bed-rest. However, we now know that more than a few days of bed-rest can be counter-productive. A study conducted at Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College and published in the Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation showed that chronic back pain patients who were involved in a 6-week exercise program demonstrated “statistically significant decreases in pain and disability scores”.
Chronic headaches may be relieved by exercise because exercise causes the body to release pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. In a European study which engaged headache patients in a 6-week exercise program, it was observed that endorphin levels increased with exercise and this was associated with a reduction in migraine episodes. Published in the medical journal, Cephalgia, the study concluded that “exercise was found to have beneficial effects on all migraine parameters.”
Fibromyalgia symptoms can also be reduced with exercise. Fibromyalgia sufferers may believe that they are too fatigued to exercise; however, there is a great benefit to be derived if fibromyalgia sufferers will resolve to ease into an exercise regimen. A British Medical Journal study including two groups of fibromyalgia patients assigned one group to an exercise program while the second group was assigned to twice-weekly relaxation classes. After 12 weeks, results showed that significantly more of the exercise group rated themselves as ‘much better’ or ‘very much better’ than did the relaxation group. Exercise-related benefits were reported to have been maintained or even further improved one year later.
Even those suffering from chronic emotional pain and depression can benefit from exercise. Research conducted at Duke University demonstrated that exercise is more effective for depressed patients than the antidepressant drug, Zoloft. In this 4-month study, three groups of depressed patients were observed: one group of patients exercised on bicycle or treadmill for 30 minutes three times per week, a second group used Zoloft but did not exercise, and a third group used both exercise and Zoloft. Six months after the conclusion of the experiment, it was observed that only 8% of the exercise-only group experienced relapses of depression while the Zoloft and Zoloft/Exercise groups suffered 38% and 31% relapse, respectively. Obviously, if you take Zoloft or other antidepressant drugs, this is not to be interpreted as counsel to discontinue medication without consulting your prescriber; rather, use this information to facilitate conversation with your prescriber regarding strategies to reduce or eliminate your dependence on drugs.
There simply is not sufficient room here to fully describe the health benefits related to regular exercise. When it comes to exercise, “just do it”. People should not over-exert themselves nor should they engage in activity which significantly aggravates a condition. It is important to start slowly and work up to an exercise regimen which best suits your needs and abilities. Talk to your healthcare provider about what is best for you. My practice offers therapeutic lifestyle programs including fitness training sessions with our exercise physiologist, laboratory analysis, doctor-prescribed dietary & supplement protocols, weekly nutritional counseling, massage therapy, and chiropractic care. Consider one of these programs if you have chronic pain, need to lose weight or simply wish to reduce your risk for disease and improve your quality of life.
By Dr. R. Todd Shaver