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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

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“If there were a drug with the same benefits as exercise, it would instantly be the standard of care.” Dr. Robert Sallis, Kaiser Permanente and chairman of Exercise Is Medicine (WSJ)

Exercise: The Fountain of Youth

Live well longer and smarter, with less stress

The Fountain of Youth is the legendary spring that reputedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks of its waters. We can stop looking. Science is showing that the closest we’re likely to come to the dream of eternal life can be found in exercise. The promise is best fulfilled by drinking the fitness waters throughout life. The longer one drinks the greater the benefits. Still, it’s never too late to partake (see below). 

A headline story in The Wall Street Journal (January 5, 2010) marshaled the mounting evidence that nothing, no drug or supplement, can match the power of regular exercise. In addition to lowering the incidence of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, high-blood pressure, breast cancer, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, we now have solid evidence that fitness lessens the misery of the common cold. That’s a big deal, because the common cold has defied the best efforts of man to find a cure. A new study found that people who walked briskly for 45 minutes, five days a week over 12 to 15 weeks had fewer and less severe colds. “The subjects reduced their number of sick days 25% to 50% compared with sedentary control subjects,” The Journal reported.  

An ancillary theme of the WSJ report is that more—and more intense—exercise is better. Studies have shown that exceeding the federally recommended activity guidelines (30 minutes a day) can reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack, glaucoma, diabetes, and other diseases by as much as 70% above the benefits of merely meeting the guidelines, the WSJ reported. “There is no gene or drug discovery that comes close,” said sports cardiology specialist Dr. Paul Williams. For example, satisfying standard activity guidelines reduces the risk of stroke by 27 percent. But running 40 miles a week may reduce the risk by 69 percent. (Caution: You can get too much of a good thing.)

The fitness waters do, however, come at a price. There is no free lunch. You have to be willing to swallow the exercise pill regularly in order to enjoy the benefits. You have the power, if you chose to use it.

The following are impressive new additions to the growing body of research on the benefits of exercise.

Growing “V”

A study from Israel, featured in Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter and reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine (September 14, 2009), shows that you’re never too old to benefit from exercise. People over 70 lived longer and better if they exercise at least four hours a week. Amazingly, the longevity edge was greatest for subjects 85 and over.

My observation has been that the gap between those who exercise and those who don’t gets bigger with each passing year. It’s an ever-growing “V.” This study provides confirmation.

The Israeli researchers examined mortality data for 1,821 people for 18 years, from ages 70 to 88. Subjects were classified as sedentary (less than 4 hours a week of physical activity) or active (four hours or more, including vigorous exercise, such as jogging or swimming, at least twice a week).

The results: Between ages 70 and 78, 27.2% of the sedentary group died, compared to 15.2% of the active group. From ages 78 to 85, 40.8% of sedentary participants died, compare to 26.1% of those who were active. And from 85 to 88, 24.4% of the sedentary seniors died, versus only 6.8% of their physically active peers. The last comparison is an eye-opener; the sedentary group was almost four times more likely to die.

The researchers concluded, “Not only was the effect of this [physical activity] benefit similar regardless of increasing age, but the magnitude of the difference between physically active and sedentary participants actually increased with advancing age. Maximum survival benefit was observed among the oldest group, a finding that, to our knowledge, has not been reported previously.”

In a related study, Germany researchers examined telomeres in middle-aged athletes. An earlier article on this site explained that telomere erosion is a central component of aging. Telomeres are protective DNA caps on the end of chromosomes; each time a cell divides, its telomeres shorten and the cell becomes more susceptible to dying. The earlier study found that moderate exercise helps preserve telomeres and slow biological aging. (For more details: http://www.cbass.com/Strengthtrainingandtelomeres.htm )

Long-Term Fitness and Aging

The new study, published online November 30, 2009, in the journal Circulation, found that middle-aged athletes with a history of continuous, intense endurance exercise since their youth had cells that look decades younger than non-exercising peers.

Lead researcher Ulrich Laufs, MD, and his colleagues at Saarland University in Germany compared telomeres in endurance athletes and inactive people in their 20s or 50s. There were young and middle-aged athletes, and young and middle-aged non-trainers.

In a preliminary study, the researchers found that mice that ran on a treadmill produced an enzyme called telomerase, which helps to stabilize telomeres. This trial run with mice helped spotlight how exercise rejuvenates cells.

Both the human and mouse endurance athletes showed an increase in telomerase. Significantly, the lifetime athletes had less telomere erosion in their white blood cells, which play a key role in fighting infection and disease.

The researchers concluded: “Long-term continuous exercising leads to an attenuation of telomere erosion in the leukocytes [white blood cells] of middle-aged athletes.”

“This is direct evidence of an anti-aging effect of physical exercise,” said Dr. Laufs.

“Our data improves the molecular understanding of the protective effects of exercise and underlines the potency of physical training in reducing the impact of age-related disease,” Laufs added.

This study also reinforces The Wall Street Journal report that more—and more intense—exercise provides greater benefit.

The good news on exercise continues apace; a study of young Swedish men found a link between cardiovascular fitness and intelligence.

Intelligence Link

Rodent studies have shown a clear link between physical exercise and brain plasticity and function. In humans, however, results have been conflicting. “In view of these conflicting data, a large scale, population-wide analysis of young adults was warranted,” a research team from the University of Gothenburg wrote in introducing the study (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 8, 2009).

The team analyzed data on Swedish men who enlisted for military service at age18. The purpose of the study was to determine the effect of exercise on cognitive function (all aspects of thinking) in early adulthood. Military records provided fitness and intellectual performance information at the time of enlistment. Other national data bases provided information on school achievement and socioeconomic status. A final piece to the puzzle was the inclusion of sibling pairs, fraternal twins and identical twins. This information made it possible to account for genetic influences.

This study included all Swedish men born from 1950 through 1976 who were inducted into military service at age 18. Participants numbered 1,221,727, including 268,496 siblings, 3,147 fraternal twins, and 1,432 identical twins.

The researchers found that cardiovascular fitness was linked to higher intelligence and better educational achievement; it also appeared to raise occupational status. Specifically, cardiovascular fitness between age 15 and 18 predicted cognitive performance at 18. Looking forward, fitness level at 18 predicted educational achievements and socioeconomic status later in life.

By comparing the lifestyle and intellectual performance of twins, the researchers concluded that individual, non-shared environmental and lifestyle influences accounted for 80% or more of the associations. Heredity explained less than 15%.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate a clear positive association between cardiovascular fitness and cognitive performance in a large population of young adults,” the researchers wrote.

Simplifying the findings, lead researcher Professor George Kuhn said cardiovascular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which appears to help forge more and stronger connections between nerve cells.

Makes sense. It’s one more example of the power we have to help ourselves.

What’s more, it gets better with each new discovery. According to researchers at Princeton University, exercise not only makes us smarter, it also makes us less anxious. The details are next--and they're fascinating.

Fitness Fights Stress

Tara Parker-Pope reported (New York Times, November 18, 2009) on a presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago. Princeton researchers discovered that rats who exercise respond differently to stress than their couch potato peers.

It has been known for sometime that exercise stimulates the creation of brain cells (neurons), but not how these neurons might be functionally different than other brain cells. The ingenious study found that the exercise-induced brain cells are calm in the face of a stressful experience.

One group of rats was allowed to run freely, while a second group was restricted in their activity. Both groups were then forced to swim in cold water, a universally objectionable activity for rats. The brains of all rats were “examined” after the ordeal. (Bet there were no volunteers.) What they found was remarkable. Swimming activated neurons in all of the rats; but the new cells created by running generally remained quiet. The “cells born from running,” the researchers told the meeting, appeared to have been “specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience.”

Parker-Pope wrote that “the rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm.” She added, “Scientists are beginning to [understand] how exercise remodels the brain, making it more resistant to stress.”

Parker-Pope quoted Michael Hopkins, a graduate student at Dartmouth, studying how exercise affects thinking and emotion: “It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms. It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stress to the realm of psychological stressors,” he said.

This incredible transformation doesn’t happen overnight. In rats, the effects kick in somewhere between three and six weeks of running. We don’t know how long or how intense the exercise must be in humans. Parker-Pope looked to Benjamin Greenwood (a research associate at the University of Colorado) for guidance. His advice is “don’t quit.” You may not feel a magical reduction in stress after your first jog—bike ride or swim—but the changes will begin, and eventually become “profound.”

As noted earlier, you have to be willing to swallow the exercise pill regularly in order to enjoy the benefits. If you’re waiting for the Viagra of exercise, forget about it. You’re likely to be waiting a very long time.

No Pill

My friend Richard Winett, PhD, publisher of Master Trainer (www.ageless-athletes.com ), alerted me to an “in press” paper for the Journal of Physiology exploring the complexities involved in producing the many benefits of exercise in pill form. In the 39-page paper, F. W. Booth and M. J. Laye, Department of Medical Pharmacology and Physiology, and the Health Activities Center, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, explain why an exercise pill is implausible.

Booth and Laye make two key points. First, the human body evolved through movement: “Physical activity provided a survival advantage during most of animal/human existence on Earth.” No pill can replicate the many effects of exercise, involving many organs and systems, depending on the nature of the exercise. For example, endurance and strength exercise have many different effects. Plus, there are many variations and combinations of each type of exercise, each eliciting a specific bodily response. Secondly, the many “health benefits are too complex to be replaced by a single pill.”  

A highlight of the paper is a compelling representation of the human body showing all the potential disorders and diseases that could result from a change from active to sedentary living. “A pill would have to provide all these numerous benefits and prevent all of these problems attributable to a sedentary lifestyle,” Winett wrote in Master Trainer. “The reality is that people will be ‘waiting for Godot.’” (The depiction is reproduced the December, 2009 Master Trainer.)

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A fitness-minded doctor friend wrote in a recent email, “50 million plus Americans expect to turn 70 in the next decade…This may be one of the few epochs in human history during which people are looking forward and are taking for granted that they will live a long life and will want to be active.”

To live long and well more and more people are making exercise an essential part of their life, as necessary as eating and sleeping.

Step up to the Fountain. Drink of the magic waters.

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