Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Hey, Wellness Warriors! In my last two blogs, we talked about what you put in your body, the evils of sugar, and ways to keep your blood sugar in check. Today, I’d like to share about something I’m equally as passionate about: what we are doing—or not doing—with our bodies. Over the last several decades, natural movement in our everyday lives has dwindled significantly. I believe that this decrease in movement is a root cause of many of the health problems we face today. I also know there is a lot we can do about it, and the effort doesn’t have to be hard. Let’s take a look at this…
Sitting Is the New Smoking: The Medical Consequences of Inactivity
The first time I heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” a light bulb went off. “That’s it!” I said to myself.
After years of studying our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, James Levine, MD, PhD, director of the Mayo Clinic/Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative, put it this way in his book, Get Up!: “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking …. It kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”
That is not a metaphor. While smoking rates have decreased, sitting rates are rising. According to current estimates, 5.3 million people die due to causes related to inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle compared with about 5 million who die from smoking. Studies repeatedly show that the effects of long-term sitting include health risks like weight gain, cholesterol problems, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and greater susceptibility to falls and broken bones.
I would even go so far as to say that “technology is the new cancer”—the impact is silent and epidemic. It’s changing our lifestyle habits in ways that are pervasive and detrimental.
The difference between sitting—that is, being sedentary—and movement is critical. We know from many studies of the past decade that bursts of exercise several times a week does not outweigh to the risks of not moving.
Movement Versus Exercise
We have been taught that without exercise, muscles will atrophy. But, there’s a problem with that bit of wisdom. It is notexercise per se that prevents atrophy and lifestyle-based aging. It’s movement.
Now, let’s say you buy a car and think, “This is a great vehicle. I’m going to keep it in the garage for three years and never start it or move it.” What’s going to happen? The battery is going to die right away. The tires are going to disintegrate. The seals will rot. The metal will rust. The same thing happens to us. If we don’t move, we rust. We start to corrode from inside.
So what kind of movement do we need? Many of us think we need to work all the machines in the gym or play fast pickup basketball on Fridays or do a step aerobics class a few times a week. Those might meet current guidelines for aerobic activities, but that doesn’t address our need to stop our sedentary patterns.
I’ve had too many friends keel over and wind up in the hospital because they pushed themselves with their running, biking, or workouts but weren’t taking care of everything else. You can be healthy—even healthier—if you don’t push your heart rate to 150 or 160 beats per minute every time you work out. Just do some interval training to get your heart rate up and back down several times while getting your steps in.
Researchers who study centenarians (people who live more than 100 years) pretty much discover that none of them “work out.” Most of these elders have never seen a gym. They don’t know what a trainer is. They don’t lift weights or run marathons.
What these centenarians share is a lifestyle that includes frequent and gentle exercise as part of their daily lives. Their movements are natural—the things the body does without contorting itself or putting excessive pressure on any single part, including walking, gardening and farming, climbing stairs and hillsides, and household chores, all of which they routinely do for more than five hours a day every day.
Circulation: Our Inner Tree of Life
Shirley Newell, MD, former chief medical officer at Aegis Living, explains why your body always needs to move, especially as it ages. It comes down to good circulation. “If your hands and feet are cold, the solution is to get out and exercise, not to put on gloves or stand in front of the heater. When you stand up suddenly on a hot day and you pass out, it’s because the blood is pooled to your extremities.”
A young body has a heart that is pumping at full velocity.
When you get older, it takes more effort to circulate your blood through your vascular tree, which runs throughout every part of your body to the tips of your fingers and toes. Your vascular system just isn’t as smooth, efficient, and powerful as it once was.
You can think of the body as being like a tree with a sturdy trunk, larger branches, smaller and smaller branches, and a spray of leaves. In the body, oxygen flows from the lungs to the heart (trunk), to the great arterial vessels (large branches), into the smaller vessels, arteries, and arterioles (smaller branches), and into the capillaries (leaves). Keeping the circulatory system functioning well and having good flow and exchange down to the microvascular level is essential.
Microcirculation allows blood flow in the smaller arteries, arterioles, and capillaries that supply individual cells. This is where real health happens. This is not just for your lungs and extremities. The microvasculature of your brain is critical to preserving brain function and cognition. Many believe that poor circulation and damage to the microcirculation are a central issue in dementia.
Good joint and spinal health rely on movement that provides a fresh blood supply and the removal of toxins. As we age, the cells that make up this system actually begin to break down, but exercise helps to maintain and restore the microvascular circulation.
It is essential to get blood to flow into your capillaries–your fingertips and toes for example. You can do this through basic movement, yoga, stretching, and massage. I tell my friends there is a functional reason for massage. It isn’t just to feel good. It’s so capillaries don’t die. It gets blood into them so all parts of your body benefit, even your brain.
Movement and exercise aren’t about bigger muscles or being more beautiful. It’s to enhance the flow through your circulatory tree, your strength and flexibility, and maintain your brain, bones, and moods.
The Brain: Work the Body, Work the Mind
As we age, our synapses—the connections between nerve cells (neurons)—break down or are destroyed. The hippocampus, that area of the brain that controls learning and memory formation, also begins to shrink. Chemicals called neurotransmitters, which relay signals between neurons, diminish. Beyond any doubt, physical exercise, no matter when you start, can slow down these changes.
Since the fear of Alzheimer’s disease weighs on all our minds, there is good news on the relationship of exercise to memory and many studies are underway. In fact, many experts are coming to believe that vascular impairment may be more of a factor than Alzheimer’s disease in the surge of dementia related to aging.
Though it was once thought that brain damage due to strokes was permanent, greater understanding of brain plasticity is disproving that belief. One researcher, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PhD, PT, of the University of British Columbia, looked at people with vascular-related cognitive impairment—that’s the common form of memory loss caused by problems with blood flow to the brain usually due to stroke or small vessel disease. In her small study, participants who walked outdoors for 40 minutes three times a week over six months showed noticeable improvements on memory tests, compared with a control group that was sedentary.
Walk Your Heart: Pump Your Vital Muscle
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Our minds might worry us the most, but our hearts can take our lives away without warning. For a long time, research on heart health and the role of exercise focused on intense cardio workouts. In the 1990s, researchers began looking at the benefits of smaller amounts of activity.
According to I-Min Lee, MD, MPH, ScD, of Harvard Medical School, “The research backs up what we all know intuitively: Almost any amount of regular exercise promotes longevity. Even small amounts of exercise can make a big difference.”
One study of 55,000 adults showed that running just 5-10 minutes a day reduced mortality from all causes by 30% and from cardiovascular disease by 45%— adding up to three years to a person’s life span.
If you a