By Dr. Mercola
One of the key things you can do to extend not only the quantity of your years, but also the quality, is to make a few simple changes to your lifestyle. One of the most important changes is regulating your insulin and leptin levels through diet and exercise.
I've often stated that your diet accounts for about 80 percent of the benefits you'll reap from a healthy lifestyle, but even if you're eating the best diet in the world, you still need to exercise effectively to reach your highest level of health.
This means incorporating core-strengthening exercises, strength training, stretching, and high-intensity activities into your rotation. High-intensity interval training boosts human growth hormone (HGH) production, which is essential for optimal health, strength, vigor, and yes—longevity.
That said, intermittent movement is equally (if not more) critical for maximizing the quality of your life. Chronic, undisrupted sitting—even if you maintain an optimum fitness program—has been found to be an independent risk factor for premature death. Intermittent movement is nothing more than the interruption of sitting, which can be done simply by standing up every 15 minutes or so. Physical activity also produces biochemical changes that strengthen and renew your brain—particularly areas associated with memory and learning.
Dementia may not be commonly regarded as a "killer disease." But the fact is that Alzheimer's disease now claims an estimated half a million American lives each year,1 making it the third most lethal disease in the US, right after heart disease and cancer! Loss of cognitive function, regardless of severity, also certainly impacts your quality of life.
Exercise Lowers Your Risk of Heart Disease, Even if You Have Risk Factors
As recently discussed in the New York Times,2 one of the ways exercise helps you live longer is by lowering your risk for heart disease. It cites a recent Australian study published in PLOS One,3 which set out to quantify the role of exercise when it comes to reducing the risk for cardiac disease.
Using health screening data collected from more than 8,600 Australian men and women 15 years prior to the study, the researchers determined each person's Framingham Risk Score at the time of data collection.
The "Framingham Risk Score" is an algorithm that was developed decades ago. By inputting health conditions thought to be risk factors for heart disease—conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, and so on—it estimates your risk for having a cardiac event within the next decade.
This calculation does NOT take exercise into account, however, and this is what the featured study sought to investigate. Could exercise override or ameliorate other risk factors for heart disease?
Regular Brisk Walking Can Cut Your 10-Year Heart Disease Risk in Half
The study participants were divided into three groupings based on their reported exercise levels at the time of data collection:
- Those who never or rarely exercised
- Regular brisk walking and/or occasional vigorous exercise
- Those who worked out daily, and often vigorously
Next, they checked the national death registry to determine who had died since the health data was collected, and the cause of death. Most of those who had perished from heart disease had had high Framingham Risk Scores. But the level of reported exercise did turn out to be an important factor for who lived and who died. As reported by the New York Times:4
"Overall, people in the lowest exercise category had about twice the risk of dying from heart disease as those in the middle group and six times the risk of those in the group who exercised the most often and vigorously.
More surprising, when the researchers controlled for each volunteer's Framingham risk score and waist size, they found that exercising still significantly reduced people's risk of dying from heart disease. The benefits were fainter, amounting to about half as much risk reduction as before adjustment for these health factors.
But they accrued even among volunteers who had less-than-ideal blood pressure, cholesterol levels or waistlines. Someone with a high Framingham score who exercised had less risk of dying than someone with a similar score who did not."
Walking Also Cuts Stroke Risk in Elderly Men
Other research published in the November 2013 issue of the journal Stroke5 found that daily walking reduced the risk of stroke—another potentially lethal cardiovascular event—in men over the age of 60. A stroke involves either a rupture of an artery that feeds your brain (hemorrhagic stroke), or an obstruction of blood flow (ischemic stroke), with the ischemic type representing 75 percent of all strokes.
Nearly 3,500 men between the ages of 60 and 80 participated in the study, and here, they were divided into five groups, depending on how long they walked each week:
- Those who walked 0-3 hours/week
- 4-7 hours/week
- 8-14 hours/week
- 15-21 hours/week
- More than 22 hours/week
The findings suggest that walking for at least an hour or two could cut a man's stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn't matter how brisk the pace was. Taking a three-hour long walk each day slashed the risk by a healthy two-thirds.
To Take Exercise as 'Medicine'—Mind Your Dose
Research and experience clearly tell us that exercise is a powerful medicine. But while the elderly may reap sufficient rewards by simply staying in motion for as long as possible each day, younger people (including those in middle age) would do well to pick up the pace and intensity.
As noted in the Australian study above, compared to those who exercised daily, and often vigorously, sedentary people had a SIX TIMES greater risk of dying from heart disease over the course of 15 years. There's not a pill on earth that can bolster your life expectancy that much!
I've often stated that to optimize your benefits from exercise, you'll want to push your body hard enough for a challenge, while still allowing adequate time for recovery and repair. One of the best ways to accomplish this is with high intensity interval training (HIIT), which consists of short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by longer periods of recovery, as opposed to extended episodes of continuous vigorous exertion. This is a core part of my Peak Fitness program, and the Australian study makes a case for the wisdom of such an approach.
Exercising in Your 20s May Result in a Sharper Middle-Aged Mind
In related fitness news,6, 7, 8 researchers at the University of Minnesota have again highlighted the link between exercise, heart health, and brain health. They examined data collected over a 25-year period from 2,700 American men and women, concluding that those who had greater cardiorespiratory fitness in their teens and 20s scored better on cognitive tests in their mid-40s and 50s.
For each additional minute spent on the treadmill during the initial test, he or she was able to accurately recall 0.12 more words at follow-up 25 years later. Those who were fitter in their early adulthood also scored better on tests designed to assess reaction speed and the mental agility needed to answer trick questions. Here, the impact of fitness was again deemed to be independent of other dementia-related risk factors such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and smoking.
As discussed in a recent post, obesity is associated with cognitive decline,9 in part because it increases levels of inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines in your body, which are strongly damaging to brain function. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience,10 it appears your body may react to excess fat as an invader, causing levels of cytokines to stay elevated, thereby causing chronic inflammation.
Exercise is, of course, a key ingredient for weight loss. But it's also a simple yet remarkably potent way to lower your levels of inflammatory cytokines, which will help protect your brain function.
Physical exercise has also been found to protect against other age-related brain changes. For example, those who exercise the most tend to have the least amount of brain shrinkage over time. Not only that, but exercise actually causes your brain to grow in size. For example, Kirk I. Erickson, PhD of the University of Pittsburgh found that adults aged 60 to 80 who walked for 30 to 45 minutes, three days per week for one year, showed a two percent increase in the volume of their hippocampus11 — a brain region associated with memory.
For Total Body-Mind Health, Adopt a Well-Rounded Fitness Program
Ideally, you'll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a wide variety of exercises. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, you need to increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. Additionally, as I mentioned in the beginning, more recent research has really driven home the importance of non-exercise movement.
My interview with NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos goes into great detail why this is so, and what you can do to effectively counteract the ill effects of prolonged sitting. Truly, the key to health is to remain as active as you can, all day long, but that doesn't mean you have to train like an athlete for hours a day. It simply means, whenever you have a chance to move and stretch your body in the course of going about your day—do it! And the more frequently, the better. That said, I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your overall fitness regimen:
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.
- 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.
- 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.
Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls "Modern Moveology," which consists of a catalog of exercises. Postural exercises such as those taught in Foundation Training are critical not just for properly supporting your frame during daily activities, they also retrain your body so you can safely perform high-intensity exercises without risking injury. Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- 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.
- Stand Up Every 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.