September 24, 2008
A Healthy Life is a Few Steps Away
By Rosalind Ryan
EXERCISE THE NATURAL PANACEA What would you give to live longer and feel more positive? Rosalind Ryan finds out that all it takes is a little sweat
The search for eternal youth is something that has occupied the minds of writers, film makers and fantasists for years, but the secret to living a longer life is really no secret at all - eat less and exercise more.
It sounds too simple to be true, but there is a wealth of evidence that regular exercise and a sensible diet can not only ward off a range of fatal conditions, it can transform your life expectancy. A recent report in The Lancet Oncology revealed that an enzyme that helps fight the ageing process and combats cancer could be boosted by an active lifestyle. Although the study was aimed at men with prostate cancer, the authors were so convinced they urged the "general population" to become more active.
"Your body feels good when it is used and moved," says Dr Hilary Jones, medical advisor to gym chain Fitness First. "Exercise also helps prevent heart disease and has a significant effect on reducing heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. It is also reduces the risk of diabetes and obesity, your joints are much better supported by the muscles, you are less likely to develop back pain and your physical health is just so much better!"
Exercise is also good at tackling conditions such as anxiety and depression. A study by the Mental Health Foundation in 2005 found that regular exercise was just as effective as antidepressant drugs in treating mild or moderate depression. In February this year, the charity reported that they had seen a huge increase in the number of GPs prescribing exercise for depression - a jump from just 5 per cent in 2005 to 22 per cent in 2008.
"Exercise does give you a natural high from the release of all those endorphins," says Dr Hilary. "It is a very healthy - and a very cheap - way, without the side effects, to do the same thing as antidepressants. I would much rather my patients tackled their health problems with regular jogging than taking pills."
The good news is that it does not take months of slogging away in the gym to see any benefits, as just one session of exercise can have an impact on your health. Researchers from the University of Michigan recently discovered that one aerobic session (something such as spinning or jogging) could alter the way our muscles process fat, which improves insulin resistance and can help prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes. However, that doesn't mean doing one solitary step class in your entire life is going to ward off diabetes. The researchers said that it was still important to get a "regular" dose of exercise to maintain the health benefits from each session.
It is this point that has caused the most problems for those who want to stay fit, or those want to start taking better care of their health - how much exercise should we do? What is the right amount to keep us healthy? What sort of exercise should we be doing? "It is very confusing for the public," agrees Andree Dean, chief executive of the Fitness Industry Association. "We have all these figures to remember - five portions of fruit and veg a day, 30 minutes three times a week for exercise, 60 minutes for kids. No wonder people are giving up!"
According to figures from the Government, only 37 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women are doing enough exercise to benefit their health. But how much is this? "Adults need to do a minimum of 30 minutes, three times a week, to gain any positive benefits," says Dean. How hard you push yourself during this exercise is what makes the real difference to your health.
"It is a question of intensity," says Kathryn Freeland, a personal trainer who counts A-listers such as Cate Blanchett among her clients (www.absolutefitness.co.uk). "If you are very fit, just going for a walk will not do it. But if you are overweight and the walk challenges you, that should count. You need to do something that gets you out of breath, proper aerobic cardio-vascular exercise." As you get fitter, you need to increase the intensity of your exercise and push yourself further to reap more benefits.
In addition to doing something aerobic three times a week, the chief medical officer recommends that we do muscle strength training twice a week too.
"You can use weights, resistance bands or use your own body weight for something like press-ups or lunges," advises Freeland. It is important to keep your muscles fit, as this can help delay the ageing process. Yes, that's correct - you can hold back time by staying active. Canadian researchers have found that a twice-weekly session using weights could not only give you stronger muscles, it could make them younger too. Their study on 65-year olds discovered that regular resistance training gave them muscle cells similar to those found in 20-year-olds!
Staying active as you age can also improve your balance and stability, improving your quality of life and making you less likely to suffer from falls. It is also vital to ward off the bone- thinning disease osteoporosis. The Osteoporosis Society says one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will break a bone, largely due to osteoporosis, but this can be prevented with regular weight-bearing exercise.
Of course, if the idea of becoming more active fills you with dread - or you're simply too busy to get to the gym - don't panic. Dean says, "You can exercise in little 10 minute chunks every day, rather than some gargantuan workout once a week. This means you're more likely to fit it in with your everyday life and less likely to lapse." Freeland agrees and says doing anything is better than doing nothing. "It is always better to do some kind of exercise - even for a short while - than say you'll never find the time to go to the gym because you are too busy."
She also suggests hiring a personal trainer if you are really pushed for time and money. "A personal trainer can show you exactly what you should be doing and you can split the cost with several friends. Many people now pay for three months, then go off and work out on their own. When they need more advice on how push themselves, they book themselves in again," she says. To encourage you back into the exercise habit, Dean also recommends thinking of fitness as a new way to expand your social life. "It is fun and exercise is a very sociable thing to do. Some people love going to the gym with a friend, while others make new friends while they are there."
It's hard to escape the fact that just half an hour of exercise three times a week can dramatically improve your quality of life and add years to it too. "It can only make you feel better. There aren't many downsides to fitness!" says Freeland. The first step to making exercise and fitness a regular part of your life is to make a commitment. "Ask yourself, 'Am I going to stay like this forever and die early? Or am I going to find out what it feels like to look good and feel great?'" says Dr Hilary. "It is time to stop being the master of excuses and find the energy to make that commitment to yourself to get fit and to stick to it. If people in their eighties can still run marathons, there is no reason you can't do it too."
So, although the search for the Holy Grail would have been far less dramatic had Indiana Jones simply signed up for regular spinning classes, it is a far more achievable adventure for the rest of us. We may not have the hat and the whip, but the secret to a long and happy life can make heroes out of all us. All we need to do is start exercising.
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