Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Everything old is new again, including the benefits of exercise

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Quote: “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health”.

In 400 B.C., one of the first recorded doctors intuited what we’re discovering anew; Hippocrates famously wrote, “Eating alone will not keep a man well, he must also take exercise.” Way before medicine and pharmaceuticals took hold, doctors were extolling the virtues of exercise as treatment for a variety of ills. Now the most powerful institutions are taking notice of the one simple cure that has virtually no negative side effects. The National Institute of Health is launching a massive new study that will examine in detail just how exercise affects the body.

In a nutshell, we’ve learned that exercise:

  • increases blood flow to the brain to create new blood vessels, which aids memory and delays cognitive deficits as we age
  • triggers release of chemicals that dull pain and improve mood
  • protects telomeres, the tiny caps on the ends of chromosomes that appears to slow the aging of cells
  • pumps more blood to the tissues, which allows muscles to withstand more fatigue
  • makes muscles grow and puts pressure on bones, increasing their density if the exercise is weight bearing
  • increases blood flow to the skin, delivering nutrients to the epidermis and helping wounds heal faster
  • improves burning of fat instead of carbohydrates, causing fat cells to shrink, and builds lean muscle mass

Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, of McMaster University in Ontario, has published a study that examines the effects of exercise on longevity. His subjects  were mice with a genetic disease that caused premature aging and death. He divided the genetically compromised mice into two control groups; one group ran on a mini-treadmill three times a week, and the other group was sedentary . By the end of this 5 month study, the sedentary mice had skin and fur that was coarse and thinning, their muscles were shriveled, their hearts had weakened, and they appeared near death. But the group of mice that exercised was nearly indistinguishable from healthy mice, despite their genetic disease. Even though we are very different from rodents, this study still has substantial implications regarding the dramatic effects of exercise on aging. To learn more, go to

The following are logical questions regarding exercise that I frequently hear:

  1. How much exercise is enough? The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advise that most adults do 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity each week and twice-weekly muscle strengthening. That can be in any combination- 3 times a week of 50 minutes, 5 bouts of 30 minutes, 2 sessions of 75 minutes, or even shorter bouts of 10 minutes at a time as long as it adds up to 150 minutes per week. Keep reading to learn the proper ways to do shorter bouts that are still effective.
  2. What constitutes moderate intensity exercise?  There are more choices than you may think ;  playing with the kids or grandchildren, gardening, walking the dog, (of course it depends on how old or active your dog is)  or any brisk walking for at least 10 minutes at a time.
  3. Does 10 minutes at a time really have the same benefit as a half hour or more? It depends on the intensity. You’ve read about the remarkable effects of high intensity exercise when done to your maximum effort. You must go very hard in order for these shorter workouts to result in the same benefits as the more moderate, longer ones.
  4. How do you know if your high intensity is intense enough?  There are two good measures- use your target heart rate or perceived rate of exertion as your standards. For instance, if you are 60, your target heart lies between 125-135. Subtract your age from 220, then multiply it by .8 or .85 to reach the desired level of intensity. You can also use the Perceived Rate of Exertion as a measure; on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being all-out effort that is unsustainable (think of running for your life), and 1 being asleep, shoot for a level of 8-9, which is sustainable for a very short burst for about 30 seconds at a time, that you’ll repeat several times throughout your 10 minute workout. Many people would rather enjoy a zumba class, or hour-long exercise class that has intervals of more moderate intensity, but for the time crunched person, the 7, 8 or 10 minute high intensity options are a good idea.
  5. If you hate lifting weights, or doing cardio, can you just do one or the other?  Nope, sorry!  Both are essential for conferring all the benefits listed above. Remember that weight training can also be body weight training. That includes yoga, tai-chi, and use of resistance bands like thera-tubing and continuous loop smaller bands to work arms and legs if you prefer not to buy dumbbells.
  6. Does housework count? It counts more if you include the tasks that involve the larger muscles and bigger movements, such as washing floors, tubs, vacuuming, cleaning out rooms that involve lifting, moving boxes, making beds and similar activities that require large muscle movement. Taking care of the outside of your house with activities like digging, raking, moving dirt and weeding can count as vigorous activity.
  7. Does standing more instead of sitting really make a difference?  Yes, it can burn extra calories and builds muscle when done throughout the day as an alternative to sitting.

Lastly, if you still feel resistant to exercising on a regular basis, start slowly and orient yourself to success by initially setting your sights low. Do an additional short walk, take the stairs whenever possible, fidget, laugh and sing more! Even these activities burn extra calories and help muscles and blood flow. If you’re feeling motivated, get serious about working in those 150 minutes of exercise each week, in whatever way makes you happy. If you enjoy it, you’ll keep it up and reap the many benefits, not the least of which includes a longer life!

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