Using Exercise to Treat Illness
Across the globe, there is the consensus among doctors and health scientists that people should minimize the amount of time they spend sitting down and take up exercise to help prevent and reduce the symptoms of certain diseases. Sedentary behavior is the new smoking, say several recent studies linking it to heart disease, cancers, type 2 diabetes, and poor mental health. Sedentary behavior is classified as prolonged periods sitting down without moving—that could be sitting for hours on end at a desk at work or on the sofa at home.
If you’ve felt your heart beating faster, your breathing quicken, and your leg muscles burn when you run up a flight of stairs, you’ll have witnessed the effects of exercise in three of the body’s organ systems: the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and musculoskeletal system. Studies show that exercise changes the function of these and most of the other eight organ systems in our bodies. We can see the effects of exercise on our bodies straight away, but to make long-lasting changes in our physiology, we need to repeat an activity again and again through exercise training. The body’s ability to change shape and size in response to repeated physical activity is an amazing feat, and many of the changes are beneath the surface.
Changes in the heart are dramatic. Exercise causes a marked increase in cardiac output. Heart rate and stroke volume both increase (that’s the number of times the heart beats per minute and the volume of blood ejected from the heart every time it beats). Longer term, the heart’s chambers can grow in size and volume, making the heart so efficient that it can beat fewer times per minute in order to drive a normal cardiac output. Even if you exercise at a lower intensity, you’ll still reap the benefits, and numerous studies show that regular exercise reduces the risk of cardiac disease and can help to reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension.
In our muscles, new blood vessels begin to grow as a result of regular exercise, which means more blood can flow through the body. Our muscles also become more efficient at using oxygen, and we become more tolerant of lactic acid production, so we can work harder for longer. Our muscles adapt with resistance exercise too, and strengthening exercises such as lifting weights will help to strengthen bones and joints and reduce the risk of developing conditions such as osteoporosis.
Scientists are also beginning to understand the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise. Inflammation is a homeostatic response by the body to protect itself when under attack, and inflammation features in many chronic diseases, such as metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. It’s believed that in some cases, exercise may help to reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms.
To maximize the benefits of exercise for your own health, you need exercises tailored to your specific needs. Whether you do resistance exercises or aerobic workouts, it’s clear that whatever exercise you do, you need to keep it up. If you stop, the benefits will drop—the effects of exercise diminish within a matter of weeks.
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