The Best Workouts for Long-Term Health

Learn why exercise is vital to mental health, immune-system support and healthy aging, and what types of workout really help you the most.


| March/April 2016



woman jump roping

Jumping rope is a great cardiovascular workout that also helps improve balance and build strong bones.

Photo by iStock

We all know exercise is good for us. But conversations about exercise often revolve around weight loss—oddly, not one of the health effects exercise is most likely to produce, particularly on its own. If you’re hoping to shed a few pounds, transitioning to and maintaining a healthful, whole-foods diet and reasonable portion sizes is more likely to offer success. But that doesn’t mean exercise isn’t important. On the contrary, physical activity is crucial to our health—both physical and mental—in so many ways that whether we hope to shed a few pounds is irrelevant to whether we should commit to a daily exercise program. Exercise’s most commonly noted health effects often center on our cardiovascular systems: Exercise is key to maintaining heart health; reducing risk factors of heart disease; and reducing risk of death from heart disease (as well as all other causes of mortality). But it also yields many additional benefits. Some 90 percent of Americans don’t get enough exercise. In fact, researchers believe many of the declines we consider a natural part of aging may well be as much from lack of use as from the march of time. In case you need a few good reasons to make exercise part of your healthy lifestyle, consider these health effects.

Cancer Prevention: When it comes to cancer prevention, exercise is highly effective at reducing risk—especially against certain forms of cancer. The key, however, is in intensity: Those who exercise vigorously see a significantly higher protective effect than those who exercise at low intensity. In one study, researchers monitored more than 2,500 middle-aged Finnish men for about 17 years, documenting daily activity levels. After controlling for cigarette smoking, fiber and fat intake, age and other variables, the scientists concluded that the most physically active men were the least likely to develop cancer, in particular of the gastrointestinal tract or lungs. But, according to reporting by The New York Times, the intensity of the activity was key—those who jogged or did similarly intense exercise for at least 30 minutes a day had a 50 percent reduction in the risk of dying prematurely of cancer, while those who strolled and walked saw smaller reductions in risk. Quantity is also important: In the comprehensive 2008 national Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee report, the committee found that one hour per day of moderate to vigorous activity reduced risk of breast cancer more significantly than the 2.5 hours of moderate exercise a week recommended by the surgeon general.

Immunity: Exercise’s ability to reduce incidents of cold, flu and infection is well-documented: In one study of about 1,000 healthy adults, aged 18 to 85, over a 12-week period, those in the top quarter for fitness levels (who exercised five days a week) experienced 43 percent fewer days with upper respiratory tract illness compared with the bottom 25 percent of exercisers. Exactly why exercise may boost immunity is unknown. Some researchers hypothesize that exercise helps increase the diversity of the beneficial microorganisms in the gut, thereby improving immunity—studies have linked exercise with greater diversity in the microbiota. Others believe the immune benefits may be connected with exercise’s positive effects on circulation, while others attribute the increase in wellness to the reduction in stress hormones exercise confers. One caveat: After intense, extended workouts (runs of more than two hours, for example) immune function is temporarily diminished.

Bone Health: It’s important to exercise throughout our lives for bone health. When we’re young, exercise helps us build stronger bones, achieving greater peak bone mass (which occurs in our 20s) than those who don’t, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. After that time, we begin to lose bone every year, but exercise can also help prevent bone loss. Not all exercise boosts bone health, however—exercises such as cycling and swimming, while excellent cardiovascular exercises, don’t help protect the bones because they’re not weight-bearing. Instead, try exercises that make the body work against gravity: weight training, hiking and jogging, tennis, dancing or climbing stairs.

Joint and Back Pain: Exercise also strengthens joints, which can reduce the effects of the degenerative disease osteoarthritis. Although it may seem counterintuitive, exercise helps increase joint flexibility and health—many arthritis patients who start an exercise program report less disability and pain, and also remain independent longer than their inactive peers, according to research reported in The New York Times. Some of the best exercises for osteoarthritis sufferers include strengthening exercises such as weight lifting; range-of-motion exercises such as yoga and tai chi; and low-impact aerobics such as swimming, cycling and walking. Lack of exercise may also increase risk of low back pain for those with chronic pain. Some of the best exercises to maintain strength and flexibility in the back include yoga and tai chi, low-impact aerobic exercise, and the development of strong core muscles. Those with chronic low back pain should be guided by professionals, however, as strenuous activity can also exacerbate back pain.

Balance: Every year, more than a third of seniors age 65 or older fall, and these falls can have serious health impacts when they lead to fractures or concussions. Balancing exercises are important to help maintain health, and they can also make us more agile and thus less prone to injury during other types of exercise. Balance is readily regained with practice, and balancing exercises are easy to do at home. The National Institutes of Health recommends seniors practice balance exercises a few times a week, using a sturdy chair to hold onto. These simple exercises include standing on one foot, walking heel to toe, and doing back and side leg raises. To get a home program for balance, visit National Institutes of Health.





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