Mitigating Disease with a Healthier Lifestyle
Ali Othman, CPT
Physical activity is an essential part of living a healthy life, but sometimes it gets pushed to the rear of our increasingly technologically dependent lives. It is also a critical factor in mitigating many different diseases that have become epidemic in nature over the last few decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese. Obesity-related medical complications result in several of the top preventable causes of death in the United States, costing Americans almost 150 billion dollars in medical expenses annually (CDC). Heart disease, stroke, several different types of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, liver disease, asthma, and depression are some of the ailments associated with obesity and thus, are preventable to an extent with a lifestyle adjustment. Increased physical activity, along with healthier lifestyle choices, can help prevent the onset of many of these debilitating diseases.
An early start at an active lifestyle is crucial in setting the stage for continued activity as we age. From the time a child starts to walk up to about age five, give them every opportunity to actively play, walk, run, climb, and move around. During this period of a child’s life, they learn balance and coordination, and it can be quite entertaining watching them explore their environment. They’ll go from stumbling and tumbling to running and jumping, and before you know it, they’ll be maneuvering around tight corners like a finely tuned Italian sports car. From age five into and through the teenage years, maintaining the proper level of physical activity becomes more difficult as school, television, social media, and handheld devices begin to take over. At this age, children and young adults need about sixty minutes of daily physical activity. During these years, children are enrolled in school where gym class typically fulfills this requirement. It also gives them an opportunity to explore different types of physical activities, find ones they enjoy, and deplete some of that pent-up energy that we wish we still had as adults.
Finally, we get to the largest category of people. The CDC recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes a week of what they call “moderate-intensity aerobic activity” (CDC). As adults, we fall short on the amount of aerobic activity we engage in, which has resulted in a devastating impact on our health and quality of life. The average adult burns around seventy calories per hour while sedentary. While immersed in moderate-intensity activities, this number increases six-fold.
Without considering any of the other benefits of these 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, let’s take a look at this in terms of caloric expenditure. The average healthy person burns around 70 calories an hour while resting. These calories are used for normal bodily functions such as heartbeat, breathing, digestion, etc. A person who gets the recommended 150 minutes a week burns six times this number during those minutes. That’s 1,050 calories in the week compared to the 175 a sedentary person would burn. Over one year, the active individual burns 45,500 more calories than the sedentary person. Via simple mathematics we know that if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. The opposite is also true; burn more calories than you eat and you lose weight. In terms of calories, think of 3,500 as the golden number. A caloric deficit of 3,500 typically results in the loss of one pound of body fat. That’s a potential thirteen pounds that an active individual can shed in a single year with only a small adjustment in their lifestyle.
If hearing these numbers motivates you to get up and get active, I don’t blame you. If you are healthy enough, go for a brisk bike ride, play a game of tennis, or shovel your driveway in the winter instead of contracting someone else to do it. There are countless ways to fit some active time into your day while making them enjoyable, or at least bearable. Spread it out across the span of the week, thirty minutes a day, five out of seven days, if possible. According to the CDC, losing five percent of your body weight can result in remarkable health benefits like lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, decreasing your insulin resistance and stress on your heart, improving your mood, and increasing your self-confidence (CDC).
Moving away from some of the more apparent benefits of physical activity, let’s explore a few of the lesser-known advantages. Bones are the structural support of our body; without them, we would be an immobile gelatinous blob of tissue. Bones are comprised of the elastic protein collagen interwoven with dense minerals such as calcium. This combination allows our bones to be strong and rigid while being relatively lightweight. Up to about age thirty, we can increase bone mass with diet and activity. Around age thirty, we reach our peak bone mass, and from that point on, the goal is limited to maintenance in an attempt to stave-off bone degeneration and osteoporosis. Limiting bone degeneration is especially important for women, as they are more likely to develop the disease.
According to the National Institute on Aging, acting early to fight osteoporosis is important because the first symptom of the disease is usually a fractured or broken bone. By that time, bone density has already decreased significantly. Consistent intake of the recommended amount of both calcium and vitamin D is paramount. Calcium intake helps to build and maintain bone mass and should be taken in tandem with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb the calcium efficiently. That is the reason the dairy industry fortifies milk with Vitamin D. In addition to nutrient intake, weight-bearing and resistance exercises help to build and maintain bone density. Walking, jogging, sports, climbing stairs, dancing, and weight training are all beneficial to strengthening your bones alongside your muscles. Next time someone tells you to “Take a hike,” you might thank them for thinking about your bone health.
As we age, hopefully gracefully, we begin to notice a decline in the functional efficiency of our bodies. This is the natural course of life; our bodies were not designed to last forever, and the human brain is not immune to this decline. Aside from the obvious functions, the brain assists us in nearly all aspects of our lives. Studies have shown that those who are physically active are less likely to suffer from age-related degenerative cognitive function (Mayo Clinic). Physical exercise has positive biological and physiological effects on the brain. It increases cerebral blood flow, which delivers more oxygen, reducing the risk of stroke. Exercise also raises the level of serotonin and other hormones, which leads to a better overall mood; and increases the level of endorphins, which helps reduce our perception of pain, stress, and anxiety. That in turn helps fight off symptoms of depression. Regular exercise has been shown to result in increases in all of these areas (National Institutes of Health [NIH]).
One factor to keep in mind is your family’s medical history. Unfortunately, many diseases are linked to a genetic chain, moving through generations, leaving some at a higher risk than others. Our genes and our environment are either engaged in battle or are working together to influence our health. If heart disease runs in your family, you should actively pay more attention to your diet and exercise than others. Eat more leafy green vegetables, raw fruits, and garlic; reduce your consumption of animal fats, and make better food choices. Increase your aerobic activity with regular sessions of cardiovascular exercise. Although you may have been dealt a more difficult genetic hand, play your cards right by using your environment to your advantage.
Sleep is an essential part of our day. While we sleep, our blood pressure and breathing rate decrease giving the heart a well-needed break. The less we sleep, the shorter the break, causing our heart to work harder than it should. Studies show that even one hour less than the recommended eight hours of sleep each night can have adverse effects on attention, problem-solving skills, reflexes, and mood. A consistent lack of sleep increases the risk of long-term problems with our immune system and our blood pressure, and decreases the body’s ability to efficiently repair tissue (NIH). Exercise and diet can promote a more regular and restful sleep cycle and lead to improvement in all of these areas.
Making healthy choices throughout the day is not always easy, but a few small lifestyle changes can result in long-lasting health benefits. Consult with your physician for safe ways to become more active, make small adjustments to your diet, and get on a regular sleep schedule to do your part to fight off disease and increase your quality of life.
Ali Othman has been an NSCA certified personal trainer for the past 13 years with specialization in weight loss, functional training, muscular hypertrophy, and human nutrition. He also works in the Technical Department at IFANCA and manages IFANCA business activities in South Korea.