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Exercise: The Forgotten Medicine

It was once said by the US Chief Medical Officer that if exercise was a pill it would be a billion dollar industry. This is not an understatement, physical activity really is the equivalent of a wonder drug, and without the negative side effects of many of its pharmaceutical counterparts. Exercise has been demonstrated to have positive impacts on multiple body systems including the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and neurological system.

Cardiovascular - Regular physical activity increases the efficiency of the specialised heart muscle allowing it to pump oxygenated blood to all your body tissues easier. Regular physical activity also leads to increased lung capacity, increased number of functioning alveoli in which gas exchange occurs and improved strength of respiratory muscle including the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. All this allows for improved function of the cardiorespiratory system and increased cardiovascular fitness.

Musculoskeletal - Regular physical activity can have positive impacts on various soft tissues including bone, muscle, ligament and tendon. Increased mechanical stress on soft tissue causes cells within these tissues to increase production of collagen leading to increased tensile strength of these tissues. This process is known as mechanotherapy and can be used to explain why tissues increase strength in response to mechanical load and why exercise prescription is such a key part of a rehabilitation program with a physiotherapist. Likewise gradual increase in mechanical loading can increase bone density so long as sufficient opportunity is allowed for rest and bone cell production in between loading cycles. In relation to muscle regular exercise provides a training stimulus which leads to an increase in the ability of the nervous system to recruit more muscle cells to provide a contraction, leading to increased strength. An increase in muscle size (hypertrophy) is due to increase in muscle cell size following repeated bouts of exercise, followed by sufficient rest.

Neurological - Physical activity has been associated with reduced risk of alzheimer's, dementia and improved cognitive function, likely due to improved vascular supply to brain tissue. Regular physical activity is also associated with improved mental health and reduced rates of anxiety and depression. Exercise leads to the release of various endorphins and neurotransmitter chemicals responsible for improving mood and reducing pain. In addition to the likely hormonal and chemical contribution to improved mental health with exercise, it can also improve self-efficacy and provides opportunity for social interaction with others, a factor which is important in managing mental health. Exercise also has been demonstrated to regulate appetite and sleep pattern.

Given the range of body systems on which exercise helps the human body it is not surprising that it has been shown to help in the management of various medical conditions such as obesity, Type II diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression in addition to a variety of musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis, spinal pain and tendon issues to name a few.

Recommendations for exercise:
The World Health Organisation (WHO) are the global experts in managing the health of humanity. Given that lack of physical activity and preventable health conditions is seen as a crisis by the WHO, it's not surprising that in 2020 they reviewed their guidelines for physical activity. For adults aged 18-64, at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity are recommended weekly or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. In addition to this, adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.

Research shows that it takes on average 66 days to create a new habit forming behaviour, although this number varies widely between individuals (see here). Furthermore, in terms of fitness, after 2-4 weeks people start noticing changes in their strength and fitness when exercising. However, changes in body composition and muscle size more often take 12 weeks on average.
So, if you stick past the first month then your strength and fitness should improve, stick past the 2nd month and the exercise should become a habit. Once things are a habit they become a lot easier to maintain as part of managing our long-term health.

Type of exercise:
There are no suggestions for specific types of exercise. The key is finding something you enjoy and can stick to to make it a habit and part of your life in order to prolong and manage your health throughout your life. Get creative, do what you love! If you don't know where to start or are nervous, get myself or any of the physiotherapists or personal trainers at Auckland physiotherapy to help you. We also offer pilates classes which keep you healthy and moving and are fun at the same time. Win, win!

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