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Exercise Rx

The Price of Inactivity

Written by Bill Phillips, TRANSFORMATION

Most everyone knows that exercise is good for you, yet few understand how good it really is. Yes, working out helps burn calories, enhance weight loss and strengthen muscles. But did you know that exercise has been scientifically shown to make us more intelligent, happier and more successful? It’s true!

When I first started developing exercise programs for people 25 years ago, there was little if any recognition from the mainstream medical community that there was any real benefit to it. In fact, some health care professionals would often warn against it, propagating myths like endurance training is bad for your heart and weight lifting would make you ‘muscle-bound’ and limit physical performance.

Fast forward to today—so much is changing. Physician and Vice President of the American College of Sports Medicine, Robert Sallis M.D., explains it this way: “Exercise can be used like a vaccine to prevent disease and a medication to treat it. If there were a drug with the same benefits as working out, it would instantly be the standard of care.” Yes, if the health-enhancing effects of exercise could be put in a pill, it would be the best-selling pharmaceutical there ever was, as well as the safest and most effective.

A new call to action takes it a step further. Exercise is Medicine is the name of the program organized by a group of doctors and health care professionals which calls on physicians to assess and review each patient’s physical activity levels at every visit. Their mission, which I endorse and support 100%, is to make exercise a standard part of disease prevention and treatment in the United States. The group believes that doctors should prescribe exercise to their patients just as they would a life-saving medicine. Ultimately they see this leading to a paradigm shift in modern medicine, one that will lead to tremendous overall improvement in the public’s well-being and substantial long-term reductions in health care costs. Their recommendations support a growing body of evidence that working out does much more than burn calories and strengthen muscles.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2005) revealed that consistent exercise can double survival rates of breast cancer patients. Researchers followed 3,000 women being treated for the disease and found that for those with hormone-responsive tumors, walking the equivalent of 3-5 hours per week at a moderate pace, cut the risk of dying from the disease in half compared to the sedentary women in the study.

These findings confirm and extend previous scientific studies which show that exercise significantly strengthens the body’s immune system. Harvard Medical School reports that more than 60 studies in recent years make clear that women who exercise regularly can expect a 30% reduction in their chances of developing breast cancer to begin with.

Researchers at Duke University studied people suffering from depression for 4 months and found that 60% of those who exercised for 30 minutes, 3 times a week, overcame the condition without using antidepressants which is about the same percentage rate as those who use medication only in their treatment of depression. And of course, exercise is not only a mood brightener, it produces dozens of other positive effects which antidepressant drugs simply do not.

There is now considerable evidence derived from hundreds of studies, with thousands of subjects, which prove that exercise is remarkably effective in relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety. The best results were shown to occur in vigorous (intense) exercise performed consistently. And the benefits continue as long as someone continues to work out.

Exercise not only helps resolve symptoms of depression and anxiety, but it also enhances self-esteem, produces more restful sleep, and helps people recover more quickly from adversity and better cope with social stress.

I’m not basing these claims on a single study. They are supported by what’s called a ‘meta-analysis’ which is a report that essentially combines the findings of most, if not all, of the available research on this topic in the English language. The overall positive patterns of these studies make it remarkably clear that exercise plays an important role in promoting sound mental health and emotional well-being. It works for men and women, adolescents, adults, and senior citizens too.

A study by the California Department of Education, involving 954,000 students grades 5, 7 and 9, showed that the most healthy kids (the ones who scored highest on fitness tests and had lower levels of bodyfat) did twice as well on aptitude exams in reading and mathematics compared to the least fit kids. Harvard professor, John Ratey, M.D., writes, in his latest book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, that more physical fitness for students is a cure for not only unhealthy weight gain, but also the kids’ academic performance.

Additional research shows that consistent exercise protects us from the common cold, flu, and bacterial infections by elevating the body’s production and circulation of immune cells. Exercise has even been shown to strengthen people’s response to the influenza vaccine, making it more effective at keeping deadly viruses at bay. In addition, exercise boosts blood flow to the brain which helps it receive more oxygen and nutrients and it increases the energy of brain waves that are responsible for quick thinking, focus, creativity, and problem solving.

German researchers recently compared a group of athletes to others who were healthy non-smokers but not regular exercisers. The athletes had significantly less degradation in the strands of DNA at the tips of chromosomes called ‘telomeres.’

When telomeres begin to shorten, cells can no longer divide and they become inactive, a process associated with aging, cancer, and heart disease. The German study was published in the November 2009 edition of the Journal of The American Heart Association where it concluded physical activity has a profound anti-aging effect at the cellular level.

Studies at Tufts University in Boston have demonstrated that even at age 92, moderate-resistance exercise, performed 3 times a week for 8 weeks, increases muscle strength by an average of 174%. This translates into a 48% increase in mobility and a significant reduction in fall risk.

Another study, published in the journal Neurology, looked at 3,298 folks with an approximate average age of 70 years. Over a 9-year span, those who participated regularly in vigorous exercise (tennis, jogging, biking, swimming, weight lifting) were discovered to be 63% less likely to suffer a stroke compared with inactive senior citizens.

Exercise has been shown to both prevent and treat osteoporosis, help manage diabetes, reduce the risk of addiction relapse, slow premature aging of the skin, promote healthier digestion, reduce aches and pains, contribute to optimism and a positive mindset. What all this information points to is that exercise is not a silver bullet—it’s platinum.25

The Price of Inactivity

The fact that such remarkable benefits come from simply adding a few hours of exercise to our weekly schedules begins to make clear how devastating the effects of inactivity actually are. You see, what exercise does is simply reverse the damage done by living a sedentary life. If exercise is a vaccine, as Dr. Sallis puts it, inactivity is akin to a deadly virus.

Medical experts now say inactivity poses as great a health risk as smoking. Let’s pause here for a moment to process that. Okay, what that means is if parents let their kids play video games and sit at the computer all day, it’s akin to handing them a pack of cigarettes. Yes or no… would you do that to your kids? And what about yourself?

Please realize that every week you don’t get up and move for a few hours (walking, weight lifting, jogging) takes you another step closer to heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, depression, arthritis, and osteoporosis. Again, I’m asking you to pause, take a deep breath and consider what this means in your life and the lives of those you know and care about.

This next statistic is both stunning and sad: According to the Archives of Internal Medicine, more than 80 million U.S. adults don’t do any voluntary exercise at all. And we wonder why America, this great nation with an abundance of resources, technology, and scientific know-how, is dead last on the list of the health of modern countries.

Making people aware of the reality of this situation can literally save lives. It’s true! It’s also true that if we can get this message out and get people moving, we can transform the nation from worst to first in health and fitness. We start by setting a positive example for our families and friends. We can ask them to participate with us—invite a buddy to the gym, take the kids to a park and kick off a friendly game of soccer, shoot baskets, go swimming or race in the backyard. Do something, anything, that gets the blood and oxygen pumping, lights up the brain and works the muscles!

On the one hand it seems too simple; how could working out or walking help change the nation? Yet when we look at the bigger picture and consider all the scientific evidence that we’ve reviewed so far, the impact of your leading by example and helping to spread the message makes a very real difference in the future of our society.

Add to this the devastating financial consequences: Last year it cost our country over $147 billion to take care of citizens who didn’t take care of themselves. How can there be true health care or financial reform without getting every man, woman and child that can participate in a few hours of weekly physical activity to do so? I think the only way that’s possible is to individually and collectively get up, get moving, exercise, be active and bring as many people with us as we possibly can!

The Right Dosage

Oftentimes people mistakenly believe that to enjoy the benefits of exercise they would need to dedicate a significant portion of their day to it. Television weight-loss reality shows that feature people working out 6 hours a day contribute to this widespread misunderstanding. The scientific fact is that significant psychological and physical health benefits begin to occur with as little as 30 minutes of walking, 3 days a week. This is something virtually everyone can do so they don’t miss out on this vitally important aspect of the transformation program.

If you’re just starting out with an exercise program or are coming back to it after considerable time off, be sure to first check with your doctor (he or she will very likely give you the thumbs up and even congratulate you on your decision) and then simply start out gradually with a couple hours of exercise per week. It really can be as simple as walking or jogging for about a half hour every other day. You could also use indoor aerobic equipment like a treadmill, stair-climber or stationary bike.

Swimming, yoga, tennis, bicycling, martial arts, hiking… those are all good forms of exercise too. Adding in some weight lifting each week offers tremendous benefits as well.

After you’ve been consistently exercising for a month you can increase the ‘dosage’ for even more benefits by adding another hour of exercise a week or by increasing the intensity of your workouts. For example, if you’ve been regularly jogging at a 12-minute per mile pace, you can aim for an 11-minute pace and when you get comfortable with that, take it to 10 minutes per mile.

With strength training, we can increase intensity by adding more weight to our lifts; for example, if we’ve been doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on the shoulder press with 20-lb dumbbells, we can increase it to 25 lbs and the next month aim for 30 lbs. This is called ‘progressive-resistance training’ and it’s the foundation of every effective strength-training program. What I teach athletes and weekend warriors is that if you want to build muscle, you’ve got to get stronger and stronger. This style of training also produces tremendous benefits in terms of building bone mass and reinforcing tendon and ligament strength.

Vigorous exercise also helps increase the metabolic rate which is how many calories the body uses up to keep going all day long. Scientific studies have shown that after a good workout, our body burns more fat throughout the day. This is why simply keeping track of the calories burned during exercise is not really an accurate way to measure energy expenditure.

All these recommendations are within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Physical-Activity Guidelines for Americans. Having worked with HHS as a part of a task force assigned to develop solutions for childhood obesity in particular, I’ve gained considerable respect and appreciation for the credibility and validity of their work. The HHS guidelines, published in 2008, are the result of thousands of hours of analysis of the available scientific literature (hundreds and hundreds of studies) on physical activity and health. I wholeheartedly endorse and support their findings which follow:

U.S. Dept. Of Health And Human Services Exercise Guidelines For Adults

  • All adults should avoid inactivity. Some physical activity is better than none, and adults who participate in any amount of exercise are going to gain some health benefits.
  • For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 and a half hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobics. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.
  • For additional and more extensive health benefits, adults should increase their aerobic exercise to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-inten-sity, or 150 minutes (2 and a half hours) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or a combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity activity.
  • Adults should also do muscle-strengthening exercises that are moderate or high-intensity and involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

More Exercise Insight

The HHS recommendations accurately reflect that the greater the effort level, the less time is needed to produce positive effects. With a more moderate-intensity level, the duration of the exercise session needs to be longer to get results. This supports what I’ve been teaching for well over a decade which is, when it comes to working out, quality (intensity) matters significantly more than quantity (duration).

A study in the journal Metabolism showed just how effective High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) actually is for decreasing bodyfat levels. In this 20-week study, one group performed HIIT on a stationary bike for about 30 minutes per workout while another group performed a more traditional, slow-paced aerobic routine for 45 minutes. In this study, the HIIT workout involved starting with 5 minutes of pedaling at a very moderate pace to warm up. Then it evolved into performing short, intense bursts of sprinting (pedaling as fast as they could for about 60 seconds), followed by a couple minutes of very slow pedaling to lower the heart rate back down to 120-130 beats per minute. This sprint-rest cycle was repeated 10-15 times.

At the conclusion of this study, the HIIT group lost over three times as much bodyfat as those following the traditional aerobic workout. This happened in spite of the fact that the endurance group expended twice as many calories during their workout. The researchers discovered that for every calorie expended during HIIT, there was a ninefold loss of subcutaneous bodyfat as compared to the endurance trainers.

Again, this indicates that we can’t measure the fat-burning effects of exercise by simply looking at the calories-expended number on high-tech aerobic equipment. What’s happening is a significant amount of stored bodyfat is being burned in the hours after the workout. In fact, this study showed that there was an increase in the lipase enzyme activity and beta-oxidation (fat burning) in test subjects who did the HIIT program. This metabolic effect was not seen in those doing moderate-aerobics.


Exercise is good medicine. It’s a healthy prescription which can help you improve the condition of your mind and body. And it’s something that can benefit everyone: men, women and children alike. It will help you form a solid foundation of well-being and give you the mental energy and clarity to complete the challenging assignments and action steps ahead. The sooner you begin, the sooner you will enjoy the many benefits.

Article Reviewed: January 19, 2016
Copyright © 2015 Healthy Magazine
Bill Phillips

Best-selling Body-for-LIFE author Bill Phillips believes that for millions of people, depression, illness, and obesity in America can stop right now.
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