Physical Activity: Can It Lead To A Longer Life?
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I ask from the words of Mary Oliver. Think on that. What if I told you that you could extend your life by adding just a few more minutes of activity, would you do it?
My trepidation of dying sprouted from the realization that anyone I hold dear in my life along with myself, could at any minute find out our lives are running on borrowed time. Now I’m not talking about the hundreds of thousands of deaths that result from accidents, but the ones currently ranked as the leading causes of death: cardiovascular disease and cancer due to physical inactivity. This realization has triggered fear, but more importantly has motivated me to become the healthiest version of myself I can be, while advocating for others’ health in the process. As Plato accounts, “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” I want to save and preserve my body for as long I can, and engaging in consistent physical activity herein lies my opportunity to do so. Want to join me?
Targeting the fields of Exercise Physiology and Health Promotion, this work aims to provide insight on the relationship between physical activity and lifespan. It takes a deeper look into physical activity recommendations and the outcomes of its engagement in hopes to educate and motivate those who need an extra push to get moving.
My Relationship with Physical Activity & Exercise
Growing up in the beautiful White Mountains of New Hampshire, surrounded by a natural playground, my childhood was busy. Whether I was building forts in the woods, sledding down farm fields, or fishing at our favorite campgrounds and swimming holes, I was consistently active. As grade school progressed and organized sports made an appearance, spanning from 4th grade all the way to college, I can’t recall a time when physical activity wasn’t a key component of my life.
Looking back on those childhood years, it wasn’t until junior and senior of high school that I began to distinguish physical activity from exercise. Yes, I was playing soccer and continually doing barn chores around the house, but additionally, I started to incorporate more structured opportunities for activity like running, biking, and purchasing my first gym membership. I knew that exercising was good, just not how good. That came later.
In pursuing a degree in Applied Exercise & Health Studies as well as my recent engagement and dedication to a Bootcamp facility in North Haverhill, NH., exercise has become the essence of my life. I know that may sound like an embellished statement, but there is no better way to phrase it. Having both immersed myself in its science and actual application, I’ve found my niche – my escape from the stressors of life. I want to live a long and healthy life and by sustaining my love for physical activity and exercise, I can do just that.
To understand the validity behind physical activity and its impacts on health, we must first look to the history books. Exercise, fitness, physical activity, whichever term you prefer to use, was at one time performed as a means of survival during prehistoric times of hunting and gathering. Reaching as far back as 10,000 BC, Lance Delleck and Len Kravitz relay in their article The History of Fitness, that upon successful completion of a hunting and gathering mission, they would then journey on for anywhere between 6 to 20 miles to celebrate with neighboring tribes. This Paleolithic pattern of pursuit and celebration demanded a high level of fitness (Delleck & Kravitz, 2002). The prevalence of fitness followed through into the Neolithic Revolution from 10,000 to 8,000 B.C., the Ancient Chinese and Indian Civilizations from 2500 – 500 BC, and boomed for the Ancient Greeks from 2500 – 200 BC. Perhaps no other civilization has held fitness in such high regard as Ancient Greece, for they believed that development of the body was equally as important as development of the mind (Delleck & Kravtiz, 2002).
We move further along the timeline with a noticeable trend of fitness following each civilization and group. Martin Luther and John Locke espoused the theory that high fitness levels enhanced intellectual learning during the Renaissance from 1400 – 1600 AD (Delleck & Kravtiz, 2002) and leaders of our nation such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson made it a point to highlight the importance of fitness for health and mind. Benjamin Franklin supported physical activity and the incorporation of resistance training for health purposes, while President Thomas Jefferson took exercise to a whole new level. He was quoted to say, “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather shall be little regarded. If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong,” (Delleck & Kravtiz, 2002). I knew I liked him.
America in the 20th century has to be referenced as well as is heralded the beginning of a new era in fitness (Delleck & Kravtiz, 2002). World War II was a huge turning point for fitness when it became aware to the public that almost half of the draftees were rejected or given non-combat positions due to their poor physical fitness performance tests. Ouch. The end of the Cold War is when fitness really took a turn however, after receiving the embarrassing results that 60% of children failed at least one test in muscular strength and flexibility, launching a new campaign among U.S. political leaders to promote health and fitness among the nation’s youth, (Delleck & Kravtiz, 2002). A contributor to the cause was the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), founded in 1954 that has since been proactive and dedicated to helping people live longer, healthier lives.
If you’re interested, feel free to compare and contrast the physical activity recommendations of famous authors in history such as Hippocrates, John Sinclair, and Walter Camp with the link below. From them we can identify an underlying trend: that physical activity should be conducted, but in moderation. Spanning from 400BC to 2017, the incorporation of physical activity has consistently been recommended; a huge indicator of its importance if you ask me.
Before we move too far ahead, let’s define a few terms. Unbeknownst to many, there is a significant difference between “physical activity” and “exercise.” The World Health Organization (WHO) defines “physical activity” as being any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure (WHO 2017). Examples of physical activity therefore include activities such as walking, cycling, gardening, participating in sports, and any movements alike that make your body move and burn calories.
The term “exercise” however, takes a different meaning. Acting as a subcategory for physical activity, exercise is planned, structured, repetitive and purposeful in the sense that the improvement or maintenance of one or more components of physical fitness is the objective (WHO 2017). Gym rats, they engage in “exercise.”
Why am I distinguishing between the two? Because there may be some confusion as to what our bodies need in order to increase lifespan. This confusion lies in the amount and type of physical activity we should engage in versus what we actually endure. For some, it may be too much and for others, not nearly enough.
Here are a few statistics to paint a better picture regarding physical inactivity and its devastating effects.
- Insufficient physical activity is one of the leading risk factors for death worldwide (WHO, 2017).
- Insufficient physical activity is a key risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes (WHO, 2017).
- Globally, 1 in 4 adults is not active enough (WHO, 2017).
- More than 80% of the world’s adolescent population is insufficiently physically active (WHO, 2017)
Disease. Cancer. Diabetes. Death. All dangers that people are at risk for due to physical inactivity. What’s the barrier then that stands in the way of people’s desire to be healthy? Perhaps it’s laziness or lack of education that prevents them from seeing the consequences of keeping their body that was born to move, immobile. That may be a question for another time, but lets dig deeper into the effects of physical inactivity and how life expectancy might be affected were the stats to favor a more active population.
In an interview with the Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. I-Min Lee, conducted by April Cashin-Garbutt, Dr. Lee spoke of her findings targeted at the relationship between physical activity and life expectancy. With 1/3 of the world’s population currently inactive, Dr. Lee tried to estimate how many deaths would be prevented if every inactive person became active along with how much longer those individuals therefor might live. From these findings, it was discovered that 5.3 million deaths worldwide would be removed and on average, life expectancy would increase by 0.68 years (Cashin-Garbutt, 2012). To put these statistics into perspective, Dr. Lee compared them to the risk factors associated with smoking and the detrimental effects it has on health. Worldwide, 5 million smoking-related deaths occur each year, therefore, inactivity, in causing 5.3 million deaths per year, is comparable to smoking as far as health dangers are concerned (Cashin-Garbutt, 2012).
Behind the Scenes
It is safe to assume that the majority of people understand that being physically active can help lead a long and healthy life, but some may not understand why. What happens behind the scenes, or inside our bodies when we engage in physical activity that promotes this lifestyle? Let’s look at our muscles. When our brain calls on our muscles to move and perform certain activities such as running or weight-lifting, they rely on two forms of energy to follow through with these requests – glucose and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the biochemical way our bodies utilize and store energy. As our muscles call on these sources, their supplies will inevitably run out, requiring the need for oxygen to help create more ATP. If and when the body no longer has an efficient amount of oxygen to provide the muscles, lactic acid will form and tiny tears will occur, aiding the growth and strength of the muscles as they heal (Mercola, 2013). Muscles not only provide strength and balance to everyday activities in our lives, but according to new UCLA research, “the more muscle mass older Americans have, the less likely they are to die prematurely,” and “building muscle is important for decreasing metabolic risk,” (Rivero, 2014).
Serving as the essential component to our existence as human beings, oxygen is called upon by muscles during physical activity “as much as 15 times more than when you’re at rest,” (Mercola, 2013). Breathing rate therefor increases until the muscles that surround the lungs are unable to move any faster. This peak in oxygen delivery is classified as one’s VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen one can use during intense exercise (Mercola, 2013). To make it simple, the higher your VO2max, the more fit you are, and “there is convincing evidence that a moderate or high level of cardiorespiratory fitness reduces the risk of all-cause and CVD (cardiovascular disease) mortality in both men and women,” according to Mortality trends in the general population: the importance of cardiorespiratory fitness, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England).
What about the heart? Given that this organ is either classified as being “strong” and “healthy” or at risk for cardiovascular disease, the importance of attention we give it can not be stressed enough. The more one engages in physical activity, the easier time the heart has pumping oxygenated blood throughout the body, ultimately decreasing the risk of heart disease. Watch this video to better understand the inner workings of the heart during exercise and its beneficial effects over time.
Benefits Speak for Themselves
It is mind boggling to me how many people remain inactive despite knowing the risk factors that are associated with their poor behavior choice. “Being physically active is important to prevent heart disease and stroke, the nation’s No. 1 and No. 5 killers,” (AHA, 2017) yet people ignore the stats and remain glued to their couches and electronics. Regular and adequate levels of physical activity improve muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness, improve bone and mental health, aid in energy balance and weight control, reduce falls risk, and reduce risks of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, and various types of cancer, (WHO, 2017) and still 5.3 million deaths occur annually due to physical inactivity (Cashin-Garbutt, 2012). Darren E.R. Warburton, Crystal Whitney Nicol, and Shannon S.D. Bredin’s research article Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence, published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine , attests that “there is incontrovertible evidence that regular physical activity contributes to the primary and secondary prevention of several chronic diseases and is associated with a reduced risk of premature death,” (Warburton, Nicol, & Bredin, 2006).
The physical activity recommendation numbers today are not absurd. In fact, on the contrary, they are very attainable. The American Heart Association (AHA) distinguishes fitness into four types: endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance training. While these four types of exercises don’t need to be performed everyday, the variety and performance of each is essential for the maintenance of a fit and healthy body.
Endurance or aerobic exercises are activities that increase your breathing and heart rate including: fast walking, running, biking, cycling, swimming, sporting events, etc. You can think of moderate exercise as being able to talk but not sing while engaged in the activity, and vigorous exercise would be the ability to only speak a few words before needing to take a breath.
According to the AHA, the recommendation for overall cardiovascular health in adults is to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-aerobic activity at least 5 days a week for a total of 150 minutes, or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days a week for a total of 75 minutes (AHA, 2017). In children ages two and older, the AHA recommends they engage in “at least 60 minutes of enjoyable, moderate-intensity physical activities every day that are developmentally appropriate and varied (AHA, 2017).
The AHA recommends people engage in moderate-to-high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days a week. Strength training includes exercises such as squats, lunges, and push-ups, in addition to the utilization of different exercise modalities such as free weights, resistance bands, nautilus machines, and bodyweight. Strength training or “lifting” can often catch a bad rep as some people associate it with big muscles and bulking, and while that is an intended goal for some individuals, there are many other benefits that don’t require you to bulk. Strength training is helpful in gaining muscle strength but more importantly, it “helps prevent osteoporosis, improves your range of motion, and ability to perform functional (day-to-day) movements and when done properly, can act as a form of aerobic exercise and even help you lose weight,” (Mercola, 2014).
People need to remember that there’s more to strength training than bicep curls and goblet squats; it’s essential for maintaining your ability to live independently as you age for it has been shown to slow cellular aging as well, (Mercola, 2014). The impacts of strength training on cellular aging is so powerful that in a study conducted on an elderly population, it was said to essentially, “turn back the clock 10 years” by reversing oxidative stress, “an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants,” (Mandal, 2017) and returning 179 genes to their youthful level (Mercola, 2014).
If you’re interested in learning more about the biomarkers of aging, here’s a video and lecture presented by Skylar Tanner describing those factors that we have the ability to control.
Flexibility is an essential component to health and quality of life. By incorporating stretching exercises or flexibility activites such as pilates or yoga, our bodies are given the chance to reach its optimal fitness level by decreasing risk of injury and conditions like arthritis and other serious illnesses.
Recommendation: 10-30 seconds per stretch, repeat 3-5 times (AHA, 2015).
In the US, about 1 in 3 adults over age 65 fall each year (Buettner, 267). A statistic as such confirms the rationale for having recommendations put in place. Good balance helps to prevent falls, primarily in older adults and aids in the performance of our everyday activities such as walking and going up and down the stairs (AHA, 2014).
Try out this balance test provided by the AHA to see where your balance strength lies!
- See how long you can stand on one foot, or try holding for 10 seconds on each side.
- Walk heel to toe for 20 steps. Steady yourself with a wall if you need a little extra support.
- Walk normally in as straight a line as you can.
Common Falsehoods About Exercise
We’ve heard them all, but lets set a few straight…
Lifting Heavy Weights Will Make You Bulk
No, no, no. Women especially, are concerned that if they lift weights their muscles will blow up and they’ll no longer have a lean figure, but that could not be farther from the truth. Considering the fact that females do not possess the levels of testosterone that are required to bulk, a few resistance training days will only make their muscles stronger and more toned. As Linda Melone a CSCS states in her article, The Worst Fitness Advice You Hear All The Time, “muscles burn calories at rest, so the more muscle you have the higher your metabolism—in other words, the only thing that will make you bulk up is if you start overdoing it in the food department,” (Melone, 2014).
Yoga will give you longer muscles
It is true that forms of exercise like yoga and pilates aid in the stretching and mobility of our muscles, but they will not and can not make our muscles longer. Muscles are attached to bone by tendons and have a fixed origin and insertion point—you cannot therefore lengthen a muscle (Melone, 2014).
Running is the best way to lose weight
While running is a recommended form of cardiovascular exercise, it does not serve as the best mode in losing weight. The key lies in a combination of cardio and strength training (again, recommended to lose weight, not bulk). As accounted by the American College of Sports Medicine, “a 140-pound woman jogging at 5 mph burns 173 calories in 30 minutes”, but “by comparison a ‘moderate effort’ circuit training routine burns 215 calories per 30 minutes,” (Melone, 2014) i.e. run some and lift some!
Leading Sports that Support Longevity
Are there specific sports out there that may help us live longer? According to Amanda McMillan, there are three. Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, McMillan reports on the study by relaying that “after an analysis of more than 80,000 people, fans of racquet sports, swimming, and aerobics came out on top,”(MacMillan, 2016). The participants, ages 30 and up were followed for nine years after being asked about the physical activity they had engaged in over the last four weeks, be it walking, gardening, cycling, running, etc. Over the nine-year span the findings showed that in the racquet sports category, people who said they’d played in the past four weeks had a 47% lower risk of death from any cause compared to those who hadn’t, as well as a 56% lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke, (MacMillan, 2016). In addition, those individuals who swam and participated in aerobics, “saw significant benefits compared to those who didn’t: they were 28% and 27% less likely to die from any cause, respectively, and 41% and 36% less likely to die from heart disease and stroke,” (MacMillan, 2016).
Every Minute of Exercise Could Lengthen Your Life by 7-8 Minutes
Just read that line one more time. I was skeptical the first couple perusals. “Not only do you get the time back; it comes back to you multiplied — possibly by as much as seven or eight or nine,” reports Carey Goldberg is this article on commonhealth.legacy.wbur.org. Reintroducing Dr. I-Min Lee who published a paper on “Leisure time physical activity of moderate to vigorous intensity and mortality: a large pooled cohort analysis,” she explains and confirms that according to her data, “a middle-aged person who gets the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise — defined as the level of brisk walking — can expect a 1-to-7 return: seven extra minutes of life gained for each minute spent exercising,” (Goldberg, 2013). The curve of gain does taper off at some point, but overall, more strenuous exercise has approximately double the effect, meaning that 75 minutes of jogging has roughly the effect of 150 minutes of brisk walking, (Goldberg, 2013) and the more time you spend moving, reflects the time you spend living.
Leisure Time Physical Activity
Now I’ve talked a lot about moderate-to-intense “exercise” and the recommendations that our society should aim to engage in every week, but what if the key to longevity was not in the amount of structured exercise we got, but by the amount of leisure time physical activity instead, regardless of body weight? Heads are turning, I imagine. Pulled from a study by a team of researchers by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), looking at the association between leisure-time physical activity and life expectancy, they found that people who engaged in leisure-time physical activity had life expectancy gains of as much as 4.5 years (Moore, et al., 2012). Lead author, Stephen Moore, Ph.D. of NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics explained, “Regular exercise extended the lives in every group that we examined in our study—normal weight, overweight, or obese…Our findings highlight the important contribution that leisure-time physical activity in adulthood can make to longevity,” (Moore, et. al., 2012).
The Blue Zones
Did you know there are regions in the world where men and women are not only living past 100, but are thriving day to day? These regions are called the “Blue Zones,” and with thanks to author and National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, we have been given insight into the lives of these centenarians, learning their lifestyle and secrets for healthy aging. Longevity for these people does not take work, it takes consistency and treating their bodies with the fuel and feedback it desires for optimal performance over time.
These longest lived people span across the world residing in Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Okinawa, Japan. Dan Buettner traveled to each region, listening to stories and uncovering essentially, the “recipe for longevity” in his travels. While his findings showed a strong correlation to diet and quality of life, the first lesson formulated from his expedition, was to move naturally. Again we reference research found that supports leisure-time physical activity increases life expectancy, and the Blue Zones mimic that. “Longevity all-stars don’t run marathons or compete in triathlons; they don’t transform themselves into weekend warriors on Saturday morning,” explains Buettner, “instead, they engage in regular, low-intensity physical activity, often as part of a daily work routine,” (Buettner, 267). The male Sardinians for example, worked as Shepherds and received their natural movement from hiking, and the Okinawans from gardening hours on end.
We all have that list of people that we wish we could meet, or have a conversation with, celebrities, relatives that have passed away, etc. and Marge Jetton is on mine. At 100 years old, Marge begins her day at 4:30 am with a mile walk, a stationary bike ride, and some weight lifting, (Buettner, 142). Impressive, right? There is a lot to be taken away from Dan Buettner’s journey throughout the Blue Zones, be it diet, lifestyle or exercise, but the one take away about longevity and the people that live the longest that I find to be most inspiring is this: “The calculus of aging offers us two options: We can live a shorter life with more years of disability, or we can live the longest possible life with the fewest bad years,” (Buettner, 298). The choice is yours.
In this TED Talk, Dan Buettner talks about his experience visiting each Blue Zone and “how to live to be 100.”
One More Time: Get Moving
If there is one take-away from this paper to stress, it’s the understanding that you do not have to be a gym fanatic or marathon runner to live a long life. You do however, need to move. Walk the dog, take the stairs over the elevator, spend 10 extra minutes in the garden, whatever it may be, up that heart rate and get the blood flowing throughout those muscles. Our bodies are made to move, and when we do, they love us for it! Longevity is strongly correlated to physical activity and health is a feeling, not a look. We place so much emphasis on health being an “image,” when in actuality, being truly “healthy” comes from the physiological functioning of our bodies and how we aid in its livelihood. We all have a choice in the matter, to live sedentary or active lifestyles, but it’s my sincere hope that more value is placed on the later. Stand up, start walking, and choose to be a Marge Jetton in this huge playground we have the potential to use for years and years to come.
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Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. 2012. Print.
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