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Top 5 Things Scientists Know About How Exercise Improves Health

September 15, 2022

Whether you’ve been able to log 50 or 150 miles so far, everyone in the 108 Miles in September  group has been doing an amazing job!

But what’s really going on in your body this month??

Sure, we have already established that exercise makes you feel amazing, but how does it improve your health? What do we really know about the science behind walking and running, especially as it pertains to chronic disease prevention, like cancer? What changes are happening inside your body?

Here are the top 5 things scientists know about how exercise improves health.

  1. It Reduces Inflammation. Chronic inflammation fuels the fire of cancer growth. Exercises reduces chronic inflammation. How does this all work? First, it’s important to realize that chronic inflammation is different than the kind of inflammation that happens when you twist an ankle or bump your knee. Acute inflammation has a beneficial effect, flooding an injured body part with additional resources to help heal the affected area. Chronic inflammation sends your immune system into overdrive. Chronic inflammation is like toxic waste that can accumulate in your tissues, sending out constant signals for help, and resulting in a perpetual state of emergency in your body. This gives cancer an opportunity to thrive. DNA mutations proliferate, cancer moves in, and it becomes like a wound that won’t heal. Exercise lowers chronic inflammation: your muscles produce several types of anti-inflammatory proteins, leading to a widespread anti-inflammatory response that lasts longer than your initial bout of exercise. In short, chronic inflammation is the villain and exercise is the superhero.
  2. More is Better. One study concluded that there is no “upper limit” after which exercise becomes unhealthy. Scientists in the UK grouped over over 90,000 participants into quarters, from lowest activity to highest activity. While there’s some chance that other factors were also at play (e.g., the lowest-activity quarter also smoked more), the results were clear: the more exercise, the less likely the groups were to be diagnosed with heart disease.
  3. Some is Enough. Another study showed that the optimal amount of exercise to receive some health benefit is 30-40 minutes. What? Didn’t that other study say more is better? These two studies don’t actually conflict. One says that 30-40 minutes of low-moderate exercise is enough to get some health benefits. The other says if you exercise more than that, you may get more benefit. Conclusion? Just because you can’t climb a mountain today, don’t skip your walk around the neighborhood. It all accumulates towards good health.
  4. Exercise is Changing and Protecting Your Brain. Studies have shown that exercise affects the structure of your brain: increases brain volume, decreases brain cell damage, and improves blood flow. These beneficial changes result in better function: in memory, attention, decision-making, and, ultimately, can lower your risk of dementia and improve your quality of life.
  5. Quit Smoking. Wait, what does that have to do with exercise? Well, nothing, and everything. Smoking has been shown to compound just about every health problem out there including heart disease and stroke, lung disease, several types of cancer, diabetes, cataracts, gum disease, and more. Smoking doesn’t just put you at risk for lung cancer (and you need those lungs in tip-top shape to exercise!) and heart disease (and you need that heart in tip-top shape to exercise!), it has been shown to put you at higher risk for other cancer, including aggressive and lethal prostate cancer. One study showed that smokers were 24% more likely to be diagnosed with fatal prostate cancer. In another study, among men who had surgery for prostate cancer, those who smoked were over 2 times as likely to have recurrence vs. men who had never smoked. Q: “Can’t I just keep smoking and exercise more?” A: “No.” Just no.

So, you’ve got 5 great reasons to lace up your sneakers and log another mile (or 2, or 5). You’re almost at the finish line!