By Linda B. White, MD
If regular physical activity didn’t make your list of New Year’s resolutions, add it now. Your life depends upon it.
Sedentary lifestyles count as a major risk factor for chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis (brittle bones). A 2010 study found that, compared to women who spent fewer than three hours a day sitting, those who sat six hours or more were 34 percent more likely to die.
The remedy is simple: Move. The benefits are plentiful.
Muscles increase in size, gaining strength and endurance. You have the energy to enjoy dancing, hiking, cycling, skating, and sledding with friends.
Body weight is easier to maintain. Because muscle uses lots of fuel, the rate at which you burn calories increases.
Bones thicken under the influence of weight-bearing and resistance exercises (working against weights, bands, or your own body weight), which reduces the risk of osteoporosis. To stimulate bone, do weight-bearing and resistance exercises
Joints become more flexible when moved through their full range of motion. Strengthening the muscles around joints protects them and eases arthritis symptoms.
The health of heart, lungs, and blood vessels improves with aerobic exercise—the type that uses big muscles and increases your pulse and respiratory rate to the point you can talk but not sing.
Exercise protects against stroke and cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and heart attacks. It lowers LDL (“lousy”) cholesterol and elevates HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
The nervous system functions more optimally. Mood, attention, learning, and memory improve. Aerobic exercise seems to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Exercise relieves stress and anxiety and aids recovery from depression.
Moderate daily exercise improves nighttime sleep and reduces fatigue, even in energy-zapping conditions such as cancer.
The immune system benefits with moderate exercise.
Exercise increases tissue sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that ushers blood sugar inside cells. For that reason, the risk of type 2 diabetes declines.
Exercise also increases growth hormone, which stimulates growth, cellular reproduction and regeneration, and maintenance of muscle and bone.
The digestive system perks along better. Constipation becomes less likely. Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome improve.
Exercise has benefits for your sex life. Working out makes you feel better about yourself, stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved in sexual arousal, and protects arterial health, thereby reducing the risk of erectile dysfunction. A study in women found that a bout of exercise counteracted the libido-dampening effect of antidepressants.
Exercise reduces the risk of some cancers.
Lastly, regular physical activity extends your life. Research has shown that people who follow federal guidelines for physical activity reduce their risk of dying by 25 to 35 percent.