Terry Waters, a former college wrestler and baseball player, loved working out. He got real pleasure out of pushing himself hard at the gym, and he liked the feeling of tired but virtuous afterwards. He figured regular physical activity and its health benefits would always be a part of his life.
Then came marriage, three kids, a demanding job as a software engineer in Boston — and a thousand and one excuses not to make it to the gym. “For a little while, you convince yourself you’re still in pretty good shape,” Waters remembers. “Sure, you’re a few pounds heavier. Sure, your blood pressure’s a few points higher. But you’re still pretty healthy, right?”
Well, maybe not. By the time he hit 40, Waters was 20 pounds heavier than he’d been in college. His blood pressure was nudging up into the danger zone, and his cholesterol level was just on the borderline of worrisome. His father, who was 67, was on medication for both high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. Two years earlier, the old man had been rushed into surgery for a heart bypass operation after suddenly becoming short of breath one day while on a bike ride. “Believe me, I didn’t want to go there if I could avoid it,” says Waters.
It was time, he decided, to get back to the gym.
Moderate exercise even a couch potato can manage
A lot of middle-aged men like Terry Waters know the dilemma. As family and work life become more demanding, exercise begins to drop lower on the list of priorities. Sure, you know it’s supposed to be important. But when the lawn needs mowing and the kids want attention, it’s harder to justify lacing up your running shoes for a good workout. Eventually, it’s easy to think, “Why bother?”
Why? For one very good reason. Staying active throughout your life is the single most powerful way to remain healthy and live long enough to enjoy your family and all the things you’ve worked for. Following the recommendations from WebMD’s Exercise and Fitness Tips to Improve Your Health offers so many far-ranging health benefits that you may decide a gym membership might be the most important investment you can make for your health. If drug companies developed an anti-aging pill with even some of the benefits of regular physical activity, all of us would be taking it.
“It’s hardly news now that exercise keeps your heart and lungs working efficiently,” says Steven Blair, PhD, professor of exercise epidemiology at the University of South Carolina and one of the country’s leading exercise scientists. “But we’ve also come to understand that exercise can help prevent adult onset diabetes, improve bone health, and even lower the risk of some cancers. Physical activity also appears to help ease depression for some people.”
Still not convinced you should hoist yourself up off the couch? Consider the following 10 health benefits you can get from even a moderate regular workout.
Exercise Health Benefit 1: Lower cholesterol
As most men get older, cholesterol numbers begin to move in the wrong direction. Levels of so-called bad cholesterol — low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — gradually increase. Levels of good cholesterol, called high-density lipoprotein (HDL), tend to fall. Unfortunately, that combination of high LDL and low HDL is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease. Excess cholesterol accumulates on the inner lining of blood vessels, leading to arthrosclerosis and heart attacks. The best way to keep LDL cholesterol levels down is to eat a diet low in saturated fat (the kind found in meat and high-fat dairy products.) The single best way to boost good HDL cholesterol? Exercise. A 2007 Danish study of 835 men found that regular physical activity was consistently associated with higher levels of HDL cholesterol. A meta-analysis of 52 exercise training trials, including 4700 subjects, found that HDL levels increased an average of 4.6 percent — enough to take a significant notch out of heart disease risk.
Exercise Health Benefit 2: Lower triglycerides
Triglycerides are a form of fat found in the blood. Rising triglyceride levels are associated with increased risk of heart disease. The same Danish study that found higher levels of HDL showed that the most active men also had the lowest triglyceride levels.
Exercise Health Benefit 3: Lower risk of high blood pressure
As blood pressure climbs, the risk of heart disease and stroke accelerates. Unfortunately, blood pressure levels typically climb as men get older. But they don’t have to. In a study published in 2007, University of Minnesota researchers followed men and women 18 to 30 years old for up to 15 years. The more physically active the volunteers were, the lower their risk of developing hypertension.
Exercise Health Benefit 4: Reduced inflammation
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce levels of C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation. That matters because cholesterol-laden plaques on the lining of arteries are most likely to break off and cause heart attacks when they become inflamed. A 2006 study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota found that men with high levels of aerobic fitness, measured as VO2max, had lower levels of C-reactive protein, along with other markers of inflammation.
Exercise Health Benefit 5: Better blood vessels
To respond to changing demands for oxygen, blood vessels must be flexible enough to widen and narrow. Smoking, cholesterol build-up, and just plain aging tend to stiffen vessels, increasing heart attack risk. A growing number of studies show that exercise training helps maintain the ability of blood vessels to open and constrict in response to changing physical demands.
Exercise Health Benefit 6: Lower risk of diabetes
Adult onset diabetes — fueled mostly by too much body fat — is one of the biggest health worries on the horizon. Staying active can help you keep the weight off. But research shows that even for people who are overweight or obese, exercise reduces the risk of diabetes. The Diabetes Prevention Program found that an exercise and weight loss program lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes by a whopping 58% over a three-year period. And the volunteers in that program weren’t running marathons. In fact, the exercise they were doing was the equivalent of burning only an additional 593 calories of energy — about the equivalent of walking around six miles a week for most men.
Exercise Health Benefit 7: A hedge against colon cancer
Colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in men. Approximately 80% of cases of this grim disease could be prevented, experts say. A healthier diet (with more fiber and whole grains) is part of the prescription. But exercise turns out to be just as important as diet. Studies have shown that physical activity may reduce colon cancer risk by as much as 30 to 40%.
Exercise Health Benefit 8: Strong bones
Another unwelcome effect of aging is thinning bones, which can lead to a greater risk of fractures. In a study that followed 3,262 men from their 40s to their 60s, strenuous physical activity dramatically lowered the risk of hip fractures.
Exercise Health Benefit 9: Weight loss
If vanity is enough to nudge you to the gym, consider this: A lifetime of regular physical activity — even activities as simple as walking half an hour most days — can help keep that belly from bulging over your belt. In findings from the National Weight Control Registry, experts looked at the habits of 3,000 people who lost more than 10% of their body weight and managed to keep it off for at least a year. Eight out of 10 of them, it turned out, reported increasing their physical exercise regimen. The men in the group cranked up their activities — walking, cycling, weight lifting, aerobics, running, and stair climbing — enough to burn an additional 3298 calories a week.
Several recent studies have shown that men who report doing more physical activity also have slimmer waistlines. In a 2006 study at Ball State University, a group of 58 volunteers started a program of walking 10,000 steps a day. After 36 weeks, the volunteers had trimmed almost an inch from their waists and a similar amount from their hips.
Exercise Health Benefit 10: A longer life
Add it all up and an active life also means a longer and healthier life. In a 2004 study at Finland’s University of Kuopio, researchers followed 15,853 men aged 30 to 59. Over a 20 year period, men who engaged in physically active leisure activities — jogging, skiing, swimming, playing ball, or doing serious gardening — were up to 21% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease or to die of any cause during the study period.
How much exercise do you need to reap these health benefits?
The answer to how much exercise you need depends partly on what you’re after. Burning about 1,000 extra calories a week in activities is likely to extend your life. Walking half an hour most days of the week is all you need to significantly lower your risk of colon cancer and diabetes. But the more physical activities you can weave into your daily life, the healthier you’ll be. “Most studies of physical activity show a strong dose-response rate,” says exercise expert Steven Blair. “The more you do, the more you benefit.”