From The Desk Of Clarence Bass
“There’s not a single organ system in the body that isn’t affected by exercise. Part of the reason the effect of exercise is so consistent and so robust is that there isn’t a single molecular pathway — it’s going to be a combination of all these things. So at the end of all these trials, we’re going to look back and list off not just one or two mechanisms, but a number of them. It’s going to be a complicated answer in the end.” Marcus Bamman, exercise physiologist, University of Alabama, Birmingham (Knowable Magazine, December 19, 2019)
Exercise—Strength and Aerobic—Your Most Powerful Medicine
I’ve long believed that exercise is the best medicine. My mother would be surprised to learn that I had it about right from the get go. It appears that we are approaching the stage where doctors will be able to write distinct exercise prescriptions for most ailments. You can help yourself at home or in a fitness center.
While the search for a drug that replicates the benefits of exercise is going nowhere, researchers are making remarkable progress uncovering the benefits of exercise.
It was long thought that the benefits of exercise are relatively narrow—mostly body fat control and building cardiovascular fitness. That aerobic exercise was synonymous with health and strength training was mainly cosmetic. It’s now becoming clear that exercise—aerobic and strength—is both powerful and wide-reaching, affecting virtually every part of the body, from the immune system to the brain to the energy systems within individual cells.
Bob Holmes, a health writer from Edmonton, Canada, explores what we are learning in a wide ranging article titled “The Workout Drug” in the December 19, 2019, Knowable Magazine.
Train Your Brain
We’ve long known that exercise increases blood flow to the brain. The best ideas come while we are moving. Researchers are finding that the benefits are more far-reaching. For example, studies have linked exercise to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.
They are discovering that the benefits of exercise come not from mere physical movement but from improvements in brain health.
A long-term study of Norwegian military recruits, for example, found that their aerobic fitness at age 18 was highly predictive of their risk of dementia in old age. And Swedish women who were highly fit in middle age had an eight times lower risk of dementia over the next 44 years than women of only moderate fitness, researchers reported in 2018 in Neurology.
Another recent study, led by K. Sreekumaran Nair, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, found that after just 12 weeks of a high-intensity exercise regimen, participants’ brains showed increased glucose uptake and higher metabolic activity, particularly in regions that usually show decline in Alzheimer’s disease. High-intensity exercise was found to have a similar effect on the parts of the brain most affected by Parkinson’s disease, in research led by Marcas Bamman, an exercise physiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The Benefits of Muscle
The belief that muscle building is mainly cosmetic having been debunked, researchers moved on to explore the mechanisms underlying the health benefits.
More than a decade ago, I wrote that the new focus in the control of diabetes is on muscle. That muscles both consume and store blood sugar. Building muscle and staying active keeps insulin and blood sugar on an even keel.
In short, muscles burn blood sugar during exercise—and exercise makes muscles more receptive (less resistant) to the storage of sugar for future use when you exercise again.
I also explained that “hard muscular work” bolsters the ability of our immune system to fight off cancer in various ways.
For more details:
Bob Holmes takes us beyond these benefits into exciting new research showing how muscle building and high-intensity aerobic exercise fight off physical decline, allowing us to stay healthy longer. Muscles boost every organ system in the body.
The first benefit involves mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells.
The muscle-building aspects of exercise also help reverse a key change associated with aging: a decline in the function of mitochondria, our cells’ energy generators. This decline, often seen in sedentary individuals, can leave the mitochondria unable to completely burn the cellular fuel and that can lead cells to generate more oxidants, the oxygen-rich, reactive molecules that damage proteins and DNA.
Muscles are chock-full of mitochondria and exercise can help avoid this oxidative damage. Nair’s studies show that aerobic exercise, alone or in combination with strength training, improves people’s mitochondrial function, reduces the production of oxidants and forestalls oxidative damage. High-intensity aerobic exercise also encourages mitochondria to produce more of the proteins they use to burn fuel.
Another benefit comes from muscles at work in our immune system.
Muscle has another important role: Its abundant proteins serve as reservoirs of amino acids for the rest of the body. Usually, when other organ systems need amino acids, says Bamman, "those are drawn from muscle.” That’s especially important when someone is sick because the immune system needs lots of amino acids to make antibodies that fight infection.
The last benefit—muscle crosstalk—is the most exciting of all.
The biggest benefit from building muscle, though, may come from the signaling molecules it pumps into the blood. Bente Klarlund Pedersen, an exercise physiologist at the University of Copenhagen, identified the most-studied of these signaling molecules back in 2000, and later coined a term for them: myokines. Since then, she and other researchers have found hundreds more, many of which are activated by exercise. These molecules, which are released in response to muscular exertion, help regulate muscle growth, nutrient metabolism, inflammation and a host of other processes. “I think for most people it’s difficult to understand why muscle work can influence my liver or be good for my brain or bones,” she says. Myokines serve as the link between muscle activity and these other organs.
One of the most important myokines in this crosstalk is interleukin-6. Released in response to muscular exertion, IL-6 has several effects, including suppressing hunger and enhancing the immune system’s response to cancer. Another signaling molecule, cathepsin B, triggers beneficial changes in the brain, including the production of new brain cells. Other signaling molecules can help moderate depression.
There’s more. You can read the entire article online:
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One more telling bit of info about evidenced based exercise: Knowable queried the experts Holmes consulted about their own exercise regimens. All five include strength training and some form of aerobic exercise. Two do cardio at a moderate pace, and three do high-intensity aerobic exercise.
Tailoring exercise to the individual (or ailment) is still a distant goal. These researchers are taking no chances by training their bodies for both strength and endurance.
The mode of exercise varies from expert to expert. Some bike, while others walk, run, hike, paddle, swim or play squash, whatever appeals to them. The amount of strength training also varies.
The right exercise program will depend on individual circumstances. Some form of strength and aerobic training should be included. Doing what you enjoy and do well is likely to be best. No form of exercise will work unless you are willing to keep doing it.
What better topic could we have for the 500th article on this self-help website than the sweeping benefits of exercise? Doctors and drugs are necessary, at times mandatory, but over the long term nothing beats what we can do for ourselves. The benefits of exercise explained here lend credence to the belief that exercise is indeed our most powerful medicine.
No one can do for us what exercise can do. It’s up to each one of us. We are the decider and the doer.
I’ve long maintained that picking up my dad’s barbell in grade school was the most consequential thing I ever did. All I wanted to do was keep up with my age-group buddies. That didn’t take long and I continued to get better.
The snap shots below, taken by my father, show my progress over the first few years of my training.
The beginning, at nine months, and doing a barbell snatch a year or so later.
That set the stage for the rest of my life. Set reasonable goals, work hard—and succeed.
Every year that went by reinforced that approach. I’ve improved in some meaningful way at every stage of my life.
The “Workout Drug” really works.
Self-help is indeed the best medicine.
February 1, 2020
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