By Dr. Mercola
Do you get at least 30 minutes' worth of exercise three days a week? According to Gallup's annual Well-Being survey,1, 2 most Americans fall short of this fitness goal.
Adults in Vermont are the most frequent exercisers. Here, a little over 65 percent of responders answered yes to this question. Hawaii is in second place, with just over 62 percent, followed by Montana and Alaska residents, where 60 percent say they get at least 30 minutes worth of exercise, three times a week.
Meanwhile, Delaware, West Virginia, Alabama, and New Jersey have the highest rates of couch potatoes. Here, only about 46-47 percent of adults get at least 1.5 hours of exercise each week.
I believe it's virtually impossible to have optimal health without regular exercise—even if you eat properly.
A key health benefit of exercise is that it helps normalize your glucose, insulin, and leptin levels by optimizing insulin and leptin receptor sensitivity. This is a crucial factor for optimizing your overall health and preventing chronic disease, and may explain why exercise is such a potent preventive medicine.
Exercise as Preventive Medicine
Preventing obesity and diabetes, reducing stress, and lowering your blood pressure are among the most obvious boons. Maintaining a fitness regimen can also go a long way toward warding off a stroke. Inactivity can raise your risk for a stroke by as much as 20 percent, research shows,3 when compared to those who exercise at least four times a week. But the benefits certainly do not end there.
I've long promoted the concept that exercise can be viewed therapeutically similar to a "drug" that needs to be taken as prescribed, in appropriate doses. Now other scientists are now starting to recognize the truth of this analogy as well.
In fact, researchers recently suggested that exercise is "the best preventive drug" for many common ailments, from psychiatric disorders to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.4 According to Jordan Metzl, a sports-medicine physician at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery and author of The Exercise Cure:
"Exercise is the best preventive drug we have, and everybody needs to take that medicine."
In terms of "dosage," it's important to note the changes in recommendations that have taken place over the past few years. While conventional aerobic exercise was long considered the "gold standard" of a good workout, research has refuted such notions.
Instead, high-intensity interval training (which requires but a fraction of the time compared to conventional cardio) has been shown to be far more efficient and effective, compared to longer, slower cardio workouts.
Vigorous Exercise Is Excellent Preventive Medicine Against Cold and Flu
When you exercise, you increase your circulation and your blood flow throughout your body. The components of your immune system are also better circulated, which means your immune system has a better chance of finding an illness before it spreads. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) seasonal colds and influenza.
According to a recent Flu Survey5 by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, exercising vigorously for at least two and a half hours each week can reduce your chances of catching the flu.6 The survey suggests that 100 cases of flu per 1,000 people could be prevented each year this way.
Other studies have also shown that regular exercise will help prevent the common cold. In one such study,7 women who exercised regularly were found to have half the risk of colds of those who didn't work out. And the ability of moderate exercise to ward off colds seemed to grow the longer it was used. The enhanced immunity was strongest in the final quarter of the year-long exercise program, suggesting that it is important to stick with exercise long term to get the full effects.
Intense Exercise Is Key, But Do It Properly to Avoid Risks
Several recent studies have indicated that conventional cardio, especially endurance exercises such as marathon running can pose significant risks to your heart. It can result in acute volume overload, inflammation, thickening and stiffening of the heart muscle and arteries, arterial calcification, arrhythmias, and potentially sudden cardiac arrest and stroke—the very things you're trying to avoid by exercising.
Ideally, to get the most benefits from your exercise, you need to push your body hard enough for a challenge while allowing adequate time for recovery and repair.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is with HIIT, or high intensity interval training, which consists of short bursts of high-intensity exercise, which is a core part of my Peak Fitness program. HIIT maximizes your secretion of human growth hormone (HGH), optimizes your metabolism, and helps regulate your insulin and blood sugar.
And nothing beats it in terms of efficiency. You can complete an entire Peak Fitness workout in 20 minutes or less. For detailed instructions and a demonstration, please see my previous article, High Intensity Interval Training 101.
Intermittent Movement Is Also Important for Health, as Is Walking with Good Posture
Unfortunately, many fail to get sufficient amounts of exercise. Worse yet, a majority of people may still endanger their health simply by sitting too much. Compelling evidence actually suggests that even if you exercise regularly, prolonged sitting is itself a risk factor for chronic disease and reduced lifespan.
I personally use XNote timer that can be downloaded for free. I go to the more section at the bottom and click on Always on top so the application doesn't get buried as i work on my computer. I then click on timer and set the timer to 15 minutes. I then click start and when the timer goes off no annoying alarm is set Just a flashing which is easily send and reminds you to stand up.
Overall, federal data suggest only 21 percent of American adults meet the government recommendation to engage in two and half hours' worth of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise each week, so there's clearly a lot of room for improvement. Ideally though, you'll want to exercise regularly AND frequently interrupt your sitting in order to optimize your health and longevity. For more information about the importance of "intermittent exercise," or interrupting your sitting at regular intervals throughout your day, please see my previous article "Sitting Kills, Moving Heals."
Another overlooked factor that can make a significant difference in your health is simple walking—especially if you walk properly, with good posture. Walking has been found to have significant health benefits, including the reduction of severe attacks associated with lung disease, and walking correctly will undoubtedly add to such benefits. I recently published details on daily walking benefits, which included instructions by "primal posture" expert Esther Gokhale. If you missed it, please see "How to Optimize Your Benefits from Walking."
New Science Reveals How We Become, and Stay, Flexible
Speaking of posture, reduced flexibility, which tends to occur with age and inactivity, can create body movements and posture habits that significantly alter and reduce your mobility. Poor posture and chronic pain is a common outgrowth of poor flexibility. Besides stretching techniques such as active isolated stretches (AIS), yoga is one form of exercise that can make a significant difference in this area.
A recent article in the journal Cell8 discusses the discovery of a new form of "mechanical memory" that adjusts the elasticity of your muscles, based on how they've been stretched previously. The key lies in a chemical reaction that occurs in your muscles, which increases the elasticity of certain muscle proteins. As explained by Medical News Today:9
"Crucially, this reaction targets molecules that have been exposed to a stretching force. This finding changes our understanding of how muscles respond to stretching... 'We discovered an effective way of tuning muscle elasticity,' says Pallav Kosuri, one of the lead authors. 'We first observed the effect on a molecular level, and then tested it all the way up to human tissue.'"
At the heart of this process is a protein called titin, which acts as a mechanical computer, providing the appropriate elastic output to every single muscle throughout your entire body, your heart included. When you use your muscles, such as during yoga or exercise, oxidation levels increase, which in turn affects titin. This protein appears to be particularly prone to oxidation, and when you stretch a muscle, titin becomes increasingly sensitive to this oxidation. One common form of oxidation is called glutathionylation. When a muscle experiences a stretching force, folded bundles of titin are exposed, which enables glutathionylation, and locks the titin bundles in this unfolded state. This in turn reduces the stiffness of titin, producing greater muscle elasticity. Furthermore, as explained in the featured article:10
"In the absence of oxidation, mechanical force can only generate transient changes in elasticity, lasting a few seconds at most. However, the effect of a mechanical force in combination with glutathionylation was much more persistent - the stiffness of the titin molecules could only be reset by reversing the oxidation.
Putting these pieces together can explain why the combination of exercising and stretching leads to long-lasting yet reversible increases in flexibility. Exercising facilitates oxidation reactions, but it is stretching that primes the muscle for oxidation. Once oxidation reactions occur, they lock the muscle proteins in an unfolded state and cause sustained increases in their elasticity. The muscle goes back to normal when the muscle cells naturally remove the oxidation, a process that can take several hours."
According to one of the researchers, yoga poses such as downward-facing dog effectively unfolds titin, enabling the processes that makes titin "remember" that it needs to remain locked in the unfolded position, which tells the muscle to remain soft and flexible.
Aim for a Well-Rounded Fitness Program
While high intensity interval exercises are safer, and accomplish greater benefits in a fraction of the time compared to slow, endurance-type exercises like jogging, I do not recommend limiting yourself to that alone. Restricting yourself to simple walking will also be insufficient for most people, even though it has its merits. Ideally you'll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates other types of exercise as well, including "intermittent exercise" during work hours to counteract the ill effects of prolonged sitting. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program in order to truly optimize your results:
- Avoid Sitting for More Than 15 Minutes. I usually set a timer for 15 minutes while sitting, and then stand up and do one legged squats, jump squats or lunges when the timer goes off. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise, or as I now like to call them, intermittent movement activities.
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.