Why pop pills when you can turn to exercise for a natural remedy?
Cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of deaths globally, but physical inactivity could emerge as the biggest public health problem of the 21st century.
According to the 2010 World Health Organization report on mortality and burden of disease estimates, physical inactivity causes 3.2 million deaths a year.
Yet, many refuse to incorporate some form of movement into their daily lives, preferring to be sedentary.
“Changing patterns in leisure and work have led to a health crisis. A low level of fitness causes more deaths than any other illness. Failure to reduce chronic diseases will result in heavy losses in terms of human life and economic production,” says Dr Steven Blair, a professor in the departments of exercise science, and epidemiology and biostatistics, at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, United States.
Dr Blair, who was previously attached to the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas, had conducted a study with his colleagues. They monitored 25,341 men and 7,080 women for an average of eight years to compare the relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and risk factors that predispose people to an early death.
The researchers made these principal observations: People who were fit, but smoked, had high blood pressure or high cholesterol, had lower death rates than people who were otherwise healthy.
And moderately fit men and women had a considerably lower death rate than those in the low fitness group.
“Yes, everything has genetic reasons, but being fit is good for you whether you have other risk factors or not. Even weekend warriors have better health outcomes than someone who doesn’t exercise,” states Dr Blair, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently.
But there are people who don’t know how to exercise! Mopping, sweeping and gardening count because some activity is better than nothing.
He says: “The best form of exercise is the one you can do virtually anywhere. Each person needs to find what works for him. The excuse is always that there is not enough time. You can walk around the couch during a commercial break – don’t tell me you’re too busy!”
The key is to make exercise fun. Some people thrive on sociability, so for them, group activities are pleasurable – walking, volleyball, line dancing, squash, badminton, etc.
Others find joy in the outdoors – hiking, cycling, mountain-biking, rock climbing, kayaking, etc. For gym junkies, there are aerobic classes, running on the treadmill, elliptical training, or perhaps swimming.
The fun factor increases when you minimise monotony and routine, and maximise sociability, variety and enjoyment.
Is being overweight bad for you? Not necessarily, although fat people are often associated with being unhealthy.
“The obesity epidemic is caused by decreased occupational energy expenditure and not because of eating more. There are people who fall into the category of being metabolically healthy, but obese,” argues Dr Blair.
“All you need to do is exercise, because exercise is medicine. Every visit to the doctor, your height and weight are measured, but never your fitness because doctors don’t know how to give a prescription for fitness,” he says.
Hence, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) rolled out the Exercise Is Medicine (EIM) initiative in 2011, aimed at encouraging primary care physicians and other healthcare providers to include exercise when designing treatment plans for patients, or to refer the patient to a qualified health and fitness professional.
EIM has just made its way to Malaysia under the Move Malaysia banner, a programme mooted by the Olympic Council of Malaysia.
The ACSM recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity.
Dr Blair, who is a past president of ACSM, says: “It’s not hard. You just have to start and stick to it.”
At 75, the academician doesn’t portray a picture of fitness and calls himself “fat”.
A decade ago, he stated in an interview: “I need more than an hour of vigorous exercise. I have run nearly every day for 35 years and now, at 65, I run 40km (25 miles) a week, which is a lot for a fat, old man.” Even so, he gained 11.36-13.6kg (25 to 30lbs) in 35 years.
But he practises what he preaches: exercise is medicine.
“You can’t tell by looking at somebody’s body shape whether he or she is fit. Many studies show that overweight people are less likely to die than unfit, normal weight people.
“If you’re fit and fat, you don’t have an elevated risk,” he rationalises.
“Obesity is overrated. There are too many negative perceptions out there about fat and obese people. You need to take other factors into account.”
Dr Blair keeps track of his exercise level by wearing a pedometer. He has taken more than five million steps every year since he turned 70.
He says, “Everyone should have a goal. Monitoring is a good strategy and can be applied to many behaviours. Generally, for adults, moderate exercise is to walk five to six kilometres an hour. For older people, depending on their mobility and disability, they should be able to walk 400m in less than 15 minutes.”
“Even if you’re too old, frail and sick, it’s not hazardous to take up a physical activity.”