An apple a day keeps the doctor away. There’s a lot of truth in this old saying we employ in the West. The Chinese have a similar saying. One hundred steps a day keep the doctor away. In stead of on food it focuses on the positive influence on health of being physically active.
More and more evidence emerges that exercise might be just as effective as drugs for many diseases. And it doesn’t generate the nasty side-effects most pills do. Apart from the fact that exercise does your body and brain a whole lot of good even if you are not ill.
“Exercise should be considered as a viable alternative to, or alongside, drug therapy”, British researchers concluded. They gathered study results involving about 340,000 individuals. This way, they were able to compare the effectiveness of exercise and drugs on four common diseases: coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and diabetes.
As for treating patients with coronary heart disease and for the prevention of diabetes, no detectable differences exist between exercise and drugs. Both appear to be just as effective. The most effective treatment of heart failure seems to be the use of diuretics. But in the rehabilitation after a stroke, exercise turned out to be the best treatment.
More trials comparing the effectiveness of exercise and drugs are necessary, but – according to the researchers – physical activity is potentially as effective as many drug-interventions.
Exercise may also be the best medicine for Alzheimer’s disease, concluded US researchers. They studied older adults with mild cognitive impairment using memory tests and functional neuroimaging (fMRI). After participating for twelve weeks in a moderate exercise program, the study participants had improved considerably in memory recall and in brain function, apart from an obvious improvement in cardiovascular fitness.
The brain scans showed a significant decrease in the intensity of brain activity in eleven brain regions. This means these brain regions are working more efficiently, which results in improved cognitive function.
Among the improved brain regions are the regions involved in Alzheimer’s disease. No study has shown that a drug can bring about a similar result, according to the researchers.
Why does exercise have such a beneficial influence? When we grow older, the blood flow to the brain diminishes. One of the reasons for this process is the fact that walls of the blood vessels harden. Less oxygen reaches the brain and this starts a chain reaction of problems. The brain depends on oxygen for its survival.
Mental processes have been shown to improve when extra oxygen is administered. But don’t go running to an oxygen bar to inhale a dose of oxygen. It is bad for the lungs to receive a lot of oxygen in this artificial way. Besides, other nasty side effects may occur, for example when the equipment hasn’t been cleaned sufficiently.
Physical activity augments the number and density of blood vessels. It brings about an increase in the cerebral blood flow and thus a better oxygenation.
Another important overall effect of exercise is that it benefits sleep quality. We have all experienced it every now and then: such a wonderful, intense sleep after you have been outdoors for the day. Physical activities help combat insomnia. It makes you sleep longer and seemingly better as well.
Our sleeping pattern comprises several stages which you go through several times during the night. Exercise increases the time you spend in the deepest sleep stage. This is the restorative sleep during which your immune system is recharged. Understandably, people who exercise regularly, have a better functioning immune system.
Studying 1,000 adults between 18 and 85 years of age for twelve weeks, researchers found aerobic exercise causes a transient increase in the activity of cells involved in the immune system defences. The adults who engaged in aerobic exercise for more than five days a week suffered 43 percent less upper respiratory tract infections than a group of largely sedentary adults. The severity of their colds also reduced about 40 percent.
Chemically, a lot is going on in your brain during exercise. To be able to move there’s a need for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This chemical substance, made by neurones, makes sure information from the brain gets to the muscles. If for a certain movement a muscle in your leg has to contract, the order to do so comes from the motor cortex in your brain. Acetylcholine activates one neurone after another in the network until the message finally has reached the muscle.
This neurotransmitter isn’t only involved in information transfer from the brain to the muscles and back. It is also involved in complex mental processes such as learning, memory, sleeping, and dreaming. Besides, it influences alertness and attention.
When you are exercising, production of acetylcholine is increased to make sure all the necessary movements can be executed in the right way. Increased levels of the neurotransmitter result in increased arousal and wakefulness. That’s why you feel really awake after exercising.
Aerobic exercise also increases levels of other neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, which help with mood regulation, anxiety control, and the ability to handle stress and aggression.
Other chemical substances play a central role in the positive effects of physical exercise as well. They are protective neurotrophic and growth factors and are indispensable to production, growth, and functioning of brain cells. One such molecule is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). When we get older, less BDNF is available. Thanks to exercise, levels of BDNF increase which helps our brain function well.
There’s no doubt, exercising is the most important thing you can do to stay healthy. But many people find it hard to go to the gym at least five times a week, for 30 minutes. So, try to find activities in your daily life that will also add to the total amount of exercise. Be creative!
Vacuum cleaning, for instance, counts. Walking the stairs in stead of taking the lift or the escalator as well. And what about that walk with the dog that so often ends up in a friendly stroll since the dog wants to sniff everywhere. Let him sniff for a while and then raise the tempo. Good for you, but also for the dog!
Chinese stairs © SeanPavonePhotos – Fotolia.com