HEALTH CARE in this country is up against two big problems.
First, despite spending more on health care than any country, our health outcomes rank far below most other developed countries. Why? The focus of our current medical system is on acute-care fixes, not prevention. Primary-care doctors don’t get paid to spend much time with you, unless you’ve shelled out extra dough to upgrade to the concierge level. Doctors get reimbursed for “procedures,” fixing what’s wrong, not preventing it in the first place.
Second, we’re facing a multigenerational epidemic of chronic diseases that degrade life span and quality, cost a lot to treat and, once developed, can typically only be treated symptomatically, not cured.
But here’s some good news: Simple, inexpensive and not very challenging forms of exercise can dramatically lower your risk for chronic diseases, extend your life and improve the quality of your years.
Based on more than 15 years of data studying more than 55,000 men and women, the nationally regarded Cooper Institute in Dallas has reported a remarkable difference between runners and nonrunners, regardless of how fast they moved or how far. The overall risk of dying for movers went down 30%. Even more significantly, heart-related deaths, the current #1killer in the U.S., declined 45% for movers vs. non movers.
Key takeaways from the Cooper and other recent studies are:
- If you move some, regardless of pace or distance, you can add three years to your life.
- Other exercises— walking and biking—provided a similar return on investment. That ROI, in the jargon of our financial advisers, is impressive.
- Moving leads to a 30 to 50 percent cancer-death risk reduction.
- A little moving also protects against neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- Jogging and walking at even a moderate pace will reduce depression and work as effectively for some as antidepressants.
- Walking at a moderate pace can lower memory-loss risk by up to 50 percent, and slow age-related declines in brain function.
- Longevity benefits were found despite other risk factors such as smoking, drinking, hypertension or obesity.
- Jogging actually can strengthen the knee cartilage that cushions bones and protect against inflammation-related arthritis.
- The kind of stresses you apply to your bones when jogging strengthen your bones and make them more resilient to injury. This result is important for post-menopausal women, who typically have diminished bone mass as they age, and women who move generally have fewer adverse effects from menopause.
Now that you’re convinced of the big benefits from just a little movement, keep these six key action points in mind as you get going:
- Whatever you do, however slow or short, fast or long, do it with consistency. If you’re jammed for time or feeling lazy, just go out for a shorter time. Your goal should be to do something six days a week, however modest. Even a 5-minute movement of some kind counts.
- Get good gear for your feet. Your most important investments are shoes and socks. For many, a neutral shoe (meaning you don’t over or under pronate as you hit the ground) with good cushioning is ideal—go to a running store for a gait analysis. Consider the Brooks brand lineup with extra widths, comfortable cushioning, durable quality and 30-day returns if you don’t think the shoes are working for you. For comfortable socks in bright colors, look at those by DeFeet and Bombas.
- Wear synthetic bright apparel. One iron rule: no cotton! Get a good wicking synthetic fabric to stay comfortable, summer or winter. And buy bright colors for safety. If you’re on the streets, you want distracted drivers to see you, particularly in low-light conditions.
- Find a routine you like to be consistent. Are you someone who prefers to exercise with company or alone? An exercise buddy can make you more consistent because of your commitment to them. Or you may prefer the quiet Zen effect from jogging alone. Are you a morning, afternoon or evening jogger or walker? Try them all and see what you enjoy most, because that’s the key to consistency.
- Don’t sweat your speed. Move, walk or jog at the pace that feels good. Some studies report high-intensity interval training is an especially efficient form of aerobic exercise. This involves short spurts at an intense speed, running the fastest pace you can, followed by longer slow periods at your regular pace. But the most recent studies also show — benefits from even the shortest and slowest moving around. Just do what feels comfortable to you.
- Don’t just sit there. An analysis of 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks of dying posed by obesity and smoking. Sitting at work, in front of a TV or computer screen, or even reading—it all adds up. Even if you exercise, prolonged sitting can negate the benefits. So get up periodically, do some of your work, meetings, etc., while standing, and in general break up the sitting you do.
What’s the bottom line? You don’t want a long life with poor quality. You want to avoid the chronic debilitating conditions that result from just sitting, working at your desk or streaming entertainment. With doctors burning out from having to see more patients for less time, and no magic pills to fix chronic diseases, it’s really a matter of basic self-help to take the simple steps that will get you where you want to go, and keep you from going too soon. Eating in a smart way is important, too—necessary, but not sufficient alone for your quality of life. For that, the inexpensive and remarkably effective Rx is: just get moving, slow or fast, and do it consistently. The positive evidence is compelling, and there are no downsides. It’s the best deal you’re going to find this year.
Alan Rudlin is a freelance writer and retired trial lawyer, who often dealt with cases involving health and science issues. In years of running, he has evolved from a jogger to a slogger, but he still hits the streets consistently.