September 02, 2014
Exercise and Quality of Life
Be Well

Exercise and Quality of Life

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  |  

About half of Americans are basically sedentary— that is, they rarely if ever exercise and seldom do any sustained physical activity. To help counter that inertia, we constantly report on research highlighting the wide array of health benefits of exercise. We want to motivate you and help you find new ways to integrate physical activity into your life.

But sometimes promoting exercise for its long-term health benefits isn’t very effective. Go to the gym to lower the odds of developing heart disease, diabetes or osteoporosis maybe 10 years from now— or even to add a few months or years to the end of your life? For many people, that’s too abstract and too far off, too much like a medical prescription or even a punishment for past excesses. Work out because it’s supposed to promote weight loss? Unfortunately, it often doesn’t (unless the exercise is accompanied by a determined effort to control calorie intake), in which case exercisers may get discouraged and throw in the towel.

One of the best ways to “sell” exercise is to focus on its immediate perks—its ability to enhance quality of life today. Speaking from my own experience, exercise has been a pleasurable part of my life for many years. I was especially aware of this in August when a back injury sidelined me for six weeks or so. The pain was bad, but the inability to be active made me even more miserable.

I’m no athlete, but I do like jogging, hiking and going to the gym after work. Several years ago I started listening to audiobooks while exercising, and now I “read” a couple of books a month this way. When the book is engaging, my half-hour jog or 15 minutes of weight training goes by in no time.

I find that exercise is not tiring—quite the opposite, it energizes me for the evening. A few years ago we reported on an analysis by University of Georgia researchers that looked at 70 studies and concluded that exercising regularly increases energy and reduces fatigue, compared to a sedentary lifestyle—and may be even more effective than stimulant drugs. In addition, I find (and studies have confirmed), it can de-stress the mind, reduce anxiety and enhance a sense of well-being.

There’s some debate about how exercise makes us feel better. Is it a matter of burning calories, flexing muscles, altering hormones, boosting neurotransmitters or what? It’s not clear, but I know there’s always a payback—a sense of accomplishment, of having taken time to do something good for myself.

But you don’t need to go to a gym or a health club. There are simple exercises you can do at home, using chairs, light weights, a jump rope or whatever is at hand. You can walk briskly outdoors or at the mall. In fact, some research shows that exercising in nature is even more restorative, physically and mentally, than indoor workouts.

It’s never too late to start exercising, study after study has shown. Even 90-year-old muscles can benefit. And it’s never too soon. Exercise may seem hard at first, but once you get over the hump, you won’t be able to do without it.