Working Out


The quick answer:  For a long and healthful life, work up a regular sweat.


Labor-Making Devices

In the beginning, there was a direct connection between work and food.  Do you recall the charge in Genesis, “By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”?  For millennia this was true—people worked hard for their daily bread.  Until the 20th century, this hard work was a sharp check against overeating. 

Then came the Industrial Revolution, with its laborsaving devices.  You could make a long list of the inventions that eliminated the use of muscles.  Your home is likely full of them.  The problem is what we don’t use we lose, and muscles are essential to health, longevity, and appearance.

At the dawn of the 21st century there’s a new goal:  Invent ways to regularly use your muscles.  This isn’t just about the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise—though that’s the starting point for this post—it’s about using your muscles all day long in varied ways and going to bed physically tired. 

The photos above are MRI scans from a recent study comparing the muscle mass of active vs. sedentary subjects. Scary, isn't it?  Bottom line, whether 40 or 74, you're better off if you use your muscles. 

Benefits of Exercise

  1. Heart disease is the #1 killer in the U.S. but this doesn’t have to be—regular exercise protects the heart.  This is generally known but, sadly, not widely practiced.  Way back in 1953, to the surprise of many, a health study of London bus operators found twice the risk of heart disease among drivers, who were seated, versus ticket takers who moved about the double-decked buses.  Since then a plethora of studies have confirmed the value of physical activity.  Researchers estimate that 2-1/2 hours weekly of brisk walking could save 280,000 heart-related deaths a year in the US.  Warning:  Consult your doctor before starting an exercise program.
  2. Longevity is improved with regular exercise.  There are many benefits, including protection of the mitochondria that produce energy in muscle cells.  A N. Y. Times article, “Can Exercise Keep You Young?” summarized the dramatic longevity difference between mice that exercised versus sedentary mice.  If you’re older, consider this article: The Incredible Flying Nonagenarians.”  Experts say regular exercise adds 6-7 active years to your life.  (Yeah, I did the math, you’ll spend one of those years exercising, a small price to pay.) 
  3. Exercise reduces the risk of certain cancers and even extends life after a cancer diagnosis.  One report noted how exercise (2-1/2 hours weekly) reduced the risk of dying from breast cancer by 40% and the death risk from prostate cancer by 30%.  Check here for guidance and precautions.
  4. The brain is greatly aided by aerobic exercise.  This makes sense; though just 3% of body weight, the brain consumes 20% of the oxygen supply.  The hypothalamus (where short term memory is stored) shrinks with age, as does its memory capacity.  A recent study had a group of sedentary people, aged 55 to 80, start a walking regime (3 walks of 40 minutes duration weekly).  After a year the walking group had reversed hypothalamus shrinkage with a 2% growth.  A control group had shrinkage of 1.5%, even though they did stretching exercises.  There’s something healthful about sweating. 
  5. Osteoporosis risk is reduced with exercise.  Because they're attached to each other, strong muscles make for strong bones.  You can see this in the picture above—the dark circle with white interior represents bone. 
  6. Maybe it’s vanity, but another benefit of exercise is improved appearance.  It’s not just that you feel better—you also look better.  Which leads to other nice happenings.

Scientists are cautious if they don’t understand the exact mechanism for a benefit, like exercise.  In truth, we don’t know exactly why using our muscles makes us happier and healthier, it just does. 

Healthy Change #5

We begin with the minimum exercise recommendation: regular workouts, working up a sweat doing whatever works for you.  I walk or jog up a nearby hill three days of the week and cycle on alternate days.  The beautiful wife takes a vigorous morning walk with her friends, where they discuss all the news of the day.  The best exercise is the one you keep doing. 

Please comment:  Share the exercise that works for you, and tell how you’ve benefited.  We’ll return to the subject of muscle building three more times this year, addressing resistance training, stretching, and ways to live the muscular lifestyle.  It’s good to be strong!

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (15)

I take my toddler on a run in the jogging stroller (or just for a walk if I'm feeling lazy) to the library where I pick up a yoga or Pilates exercise DVD. It saves me money because I don't have to buy all those discs, and it saves my sanity so I'm not doing the same exercises over and over. Our library system is excellent, and we can request items from other branches if what's available isn't to my taste.

On a related note, we only have one car, which my husband takes to work most days. This gets me out and walking nearly everywhere--the library, grocery store, bank, post office, and park. Find ways to not use the car, when possible. Get out and see what's interesting in your neighborhood.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Thanks for the boost, Skip. Looking forward to making healthy change #5 part of my routine for the month of February and beyond! Cabin fever reducer, for sure. A daily walk up our hill here in rural Maine fills the break a sweat requirement and puts some healthy color in my face instead of winter-time indoor pasty white. Kicking myself out the door is the challenge - once I get out there, I enjoy it! Love your blog - been a regular reader for months.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHeidi

I kept telling myself I'd start exercising when my daughter started sleeping (she's the worst sleeper of all time!). At almost 18 months she was not sleeping and I was losing my mind. My husband suggested joining the gym where someone else could watch her while I exercise and I don't have to worry about her napping long enough for me to get it in. I now go to the gym 6 days a week (one at night when she's asleep). It's not the cheapest way to exercise, but it works for our situation. 3 days weights, 3 days cardio. I"m a saner, happier mommy and getting thinner and more toned too. It has changed my life, for sure.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

Love your blog! Awesome information, love love.

I love Yoga. I also have a super crazy life with my four young kiddos so I signed up for and do yoga everyday at home from nationally recognized instructors. Love it.

keep up the blog. :)

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Thank you so much for mentioning the link between exercise and cognitive preservation into old age. Across almost all extant meta-analyses that try to determine how to preserve cognitive function throughout late life, regular cardiovascular exercise is the only clear, consistent variable that actually maintains and sometimes improves older adults' cognition.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

Brittany, you say it so elegantly—"extant meta-analysys"? Where did you earn your PhD?

January 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

This is a great, inspiring post Skip!

My go-to workouts are: going on walks with my kids. I push them in a double stroller around our hilly neighborhood. It's a good way to get my heart rate up and get some vitamin D and have fun. Also, I do enjoy running but do that more on my own because the stroller is getting pretty heavy. Sometimes I do workout DVDs at home.

I really feel like I need to incorporate exercise as part of my life, not just something on my to-do list. I think that is the key.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I walk my kids to and from school. I get in 3 miles a day this way.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I love yoga, as well! I didn't start until I was in my 40's and have been amazed at the benefits I have received from doing yoga regularly. I also enjoy walking, running, hiking, and biking. Changing things up keeps it interesting!

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

My wife and I lift heavy things together 3 days a week. We focus on the big compound barbell lifts (squat, press, deadlinft) that work the entire body with a full range of motion. Heavy lifting with linear progression (adding more weight each session) keeps me consistent because I am motivated to add more weight to the bar. For her it is a great confidence builder and a fantastic alternative to long treadmill sessions which bore her to tears. Lifting together gives us time to spend together with a common goal, not to mention a great motivator because she kicks my butt into gear.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I think exercise rather than something to check of the list should be part of our whole day--a lifestyle. My husband is a good example of this. He rides his bike to work, walks to his church meetings, plays basketball in the mornings and golf during his time off. He is a family therapist and does a yoga class with his clients once/week and plays volleyball as a volunteer for the Special Olympics. He is pretty lean and it's not that he tries to exercise it just the result of an active life.

One thing my husband and I have talked about in regards to excercise is the benefit of deep breathing. It is something that seems to be lost in our (American) culture. In addition to getting our blood pumping, when we exercise we have a chance to breathe deeply and restore oxygen supplies to the brain. Breathing is an important part of yoga and we may be breathing hard by default when running/walking. It's a skill we can practice throughout the day, in the car, or at work. Take a few deep breaths and you'll get some of the same endorphins from excercise.

I'm trying to be like my husband. I like to do yoga in the mornings for the strength/flexibility/balance poses. I'm sure I"ll never get old if I can keep doing those:) I walk with a friend in the afternoon for the sunshine and fresh air. And my kids accuse me of dancing too much in the kitchen while making dinner:)

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLC

Dear Readers: We appreciate the comments—they're critical to making the food reformation happen. There is a procedure to post a comment that requires typing a few displayed characters. This was recently upgraded to discourage spam being posted on the blog. The upgrade, unfortunately, was hard to decipher so we were losing many comments. To make commenting easier, and avoid lost comments we have disabled this safeguard. Hope the spammers don't bombard us. Thanks for your comments.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I recently sprained my knee and have been looking for cardio options that don't require the use of legs. Does anyone have any ideas? I usually dance and take kickboxing; I've tried shadow boxing in a stationary position but am looking for more options.

Been a reader of this blog since its inception. I'm a big fan of what you advocate, Skip.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelsi

hello! i run. right now i'm in a marathon training group, but might drop down to the half marathon if i don't have time to get all the runs in. happy tuesday, skip!

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNoreen

I am 67. I do something aerobic 4 to 5 times a week...walking, biking, elliptical and then I do weights for upper body 2 times a week and weights for lower body 2 times a week. I hope to avoid the old age shuffle! : )

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy O

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