Ask Dr. Scott: Return to Exercise

Q:  Dr. Scott, how important is beginning to exercise again this Spring for my health and happiness? 

A:  After this long winter, many of us are beginning to get active again! Exercise as a stand-alone health-enhancement approach is one of the most profound ways to increase your brain’s health. Exercise should be carefully matched to meet the needs of the individual, and be sufficiently non-arduous (or actually pleasant) to ensure a reasonable chance of compliance. Exercise has been shown to offer widespread and wonderful benefits in cases as divergent as metabolic syndrome-related disorders, hypertension, obesity, heart and pulmonary diseases, chronic heart failure, intermittent claudication, muscle, bone and joint diseases (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome) cancer, depression, asthma and Type-I diabetes. (Pedersen and Saltin, 2006)

It should be emphasized that exercise has been consistently found to be as good as, and even better than, medications at relieving depression. Exercise raises brain levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which impact that persistent “winter mood”. Besides increasing endorphin levels, it increases blood flow to the brain. There are no anti-depressants that have been shown to impact the brain in as many positive ways as exercise can. (Harris et al, 2006) If only patients with depression could have a walk or run to the drug store to pick up their prescription, they might feel that they no longer need it. The only problem is that many people with chronic depression cannot imagine getting out of bed, much less exercising since their brain is functioning so poorly. Based on these findings, physicians are now strongly encouraged to consider the role of exercise interventions in the care of depressed patients.

Q:  What about weight-loss with exercise?

A:  You should realize that if your waist is greater than 35 for a woman or 40 for a man, your risk for diabetes and coronary artery disease actually quadruples! (West, 2014) Excess body weight has an inverse relationship to high physical activity and high performance. There is both good and bad news for people with weight issues. The bad news is that excess weight is a health issue which requires addressing just as any other issue for optimal health and optimal expression of self.

The good news is that with some applied physiology, it certainly is possible to effectively lose weight, but it does require a high level of commitment and persistence — which commonly means support from friends and family and may require an additional psychological/emotional support, such as applied kinesiology and endocrine support.

Exercise uses up some of the sugar in our body before it binds with proteins. (In heart disease patients and in diabetics, this prevents a deadly process called glycation in the vascular system). Exercise also lowers insulin levels and insulin is what converts blood sugar into fat, helping to remove your love handles! Exercise also reduces estrogen levels and estrogen can actually create fat. Exercise increases testosterone levels and testosterone decreases body fat and improves your libido. Exercise increases thyroid hormone, and thyroid hormone increases your metabolism and decreases your body’s storage of fat.

Q:  What about high blood pressure and exercise?

A:  It is now known that a single session of exercise can lower blood pressure for up to 24 hours, requiring only 40% of maximal capacity, which is moderate paced walking. After 3 consecutive episodes of exercise, blood pressure is reduced for even longer, but returns to pre-exercise levels if you return to a lifestyle of 1 to 2 weeks of no exercise. (Thompson et al, 2001).

It is also known that blood pressure falls more in hypertensive than in normotensive people. In fact, regular exercise lowers blood pressure in 75% of hypertensive people, with average systolic and diastolic reductions of 11 and 8 mmHg, respectively. Exercise can reduce your 10-year cardiovascular risk by at least 25% for the average hypertensive patient. (Hagberg et al, 2000) Blood pressure reduction is effective with only 3 times a week exercise sessions. The exercise can be anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes a day and, perhaps surprisingly, there seems to be little difference in blood pressure reductions achieved between doing strong versus more relaxed and moderate exercise. (Fagard, 2001)

From 6-pack abs to erection enhancers, Americans are deluged with health promises. If you delve into these promises, however, they turn out to be half-truths at best. This is part of the reason that there are so many diet books, exercise fads and miracle cures which only serve to eventually disappoint. And yet the basic truths of healthy living from time immemorial still hold firm:

  • Exercise sanely and daily. 
  • Get 8 hours of sleep.
  • Eat less to lose weight. 
  • Drink 8 glasses of water a day. 

In her inspiring book The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Erlich meditates on the healing that walking about through open spaces gives to the soul.  Every one of us should begin daily walking outdoors in Pueblo’s city parks and neighborhoods and state park to cure our collective and individual spirit of the winter flab and blues.

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