Could there be a better medicine than a heart-pumping workout that leaves you sweaty but satisfied? We know that physical activity has health-protective benefits. Plus, some studies link exercise with improvements in lifespan as well as a reduction in mortality. One study that followed participants for 14 years found that those who met the standard exercise guidelines enjoyed a 31% reduction in overall mortality relative to those who were sedentary. That’s worth getting up off the couch for! Even study participants who did SOME exercise but less than the standard recommendations of 150 hours weekly of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity movement still were privy to a 20% reduction in mortality. So, exercise is linked with lower mortality. But, longevity is only part of the equation. What about the QUALITY of those additional years? Can exercise help health span too?
Lifespan versus Health Span
Longevity in the U.S. has risen over the past century, thanks to better diagnostic capabilities and more advanced treatments for certain conditions. Yet the quality of life hasn’t kept up with these advancements. The extra years we’re gaining aren’t necessarily quality years. In fact, after the age of 60, most Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease. Some of the most common are heart disease, diabetes, and, in the 80s, Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not hard to see how health problems like these reduce the quality of life. That’s why attention is turning to improving health span, the number of years we spend fully functional and free of serious illness rather than just prolonging life. After all, that’s what really counts and not years spent in a hospital bed or nursing home.
Ideally, we’d come to the end of our life fully functional, doing the things we enjoy, and one day we would just not wake up. However, leaving this world is seldom as smooth as that. More likely, a person will experience a few decades of chronic health problems that limit their ability to do the things they enjoy – and with the growing epidemic of obesity and diabesity, the number of health problems continues to grow. That’s why there’s growing interest not just in improving lifespan but health span.
Factors That Limit Health Span
What keeps us from being fully functional at an advanced age? For one, medical conditions can limit us. If you have significant heart disease, you may not have the stamina and endurance to do the things you enjoy. A little exertion might leave you tired and short-of-breath. Exercise is beneficial here in that regular aerobic exercise reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Along with build-up of plaque and inflammation in the arteries, plaque can rupture in a vessel that leads to the brain, leading to a stroke. A stroke can leave you with permanent disabilities, including partial or full paralysis. That would certainly reduce the quality of life! The good news is exercise lowers the risk of stroke, partially by reducing blood pressure. In one study, physical inactivity was linked with a 20% greater risk of stroke.
And then there’s the disease that damages every organ in your body as well as blood vessels – diabetes. Diabetes worsens health span by increasing the risk of other health problems, like cardiovascular disease. Plus, it damages the senses, especially vision. Visual loss can make the latter years of life more difficult. Exercise helps here by lowering the risk of obesity, a strong risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Plus, working out improves insulin sensitivity for better blood sugar control. Even in diabetics, regular exercise may lower the risk of diabetic complications as well.
Other Ways Exercise Improves Health Span
It’s not just chronic diseases that reduce health span, it’s the gradual loss of muscle tissue that goes with aging. Muscle loss begins early, when you’re still in your 30s, but accelerates after menopause. As muscle loss occurs, metabolism slows and weight gain accelerates. That’s when metabolic issues, like insulin resistance, typically show up, leading to a chain of events that increases the risk of other health problems, like cardiovascular disease. Sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle and gain in fat, is a serious problem in older people. Along with the loss of strength comes frailty and an increased risk of falls. The most serious consequence of falling is breaking a hip. That can be a life-changing injury, assuming you don’t die as a result of complications.
Exercise, combined with adequate protein intake, is the only tried and true way to reduce muscle loss and the health risks of sarcopenia. But, it’s not aerobic exercise, but exercise that works your muscles against resistance, preferably heavy resistance. Muscles that you don’t challenge tend to languish and atrophy, especially as your hormones change after menopause. After menopause, strength training is more important than aerobic exercise as it prevents loss of muscle strength and power, two prerequisites for healthy aging.
Finally, exercise improves health span by lowering the risk of osteoporosis. Loss of bone density is another reason people, particularly women, fall and break a bone. If that bone happens to be in your hip or pelvis, it can permanently alter your ability to get around. In fact, 15% of women and 5% of men will develop a hip fracture before the age of 80. That’s not conducive to a long and happy health span! Exercise helps preserve bone density, assuming you lift above a certain threshold, around 70 to 80% of your one-rep max. Lighter weights are not as effective for preventing bone loss, although high-impact exercise that involves jumping or running can be beneficial.
The Bottom Line
Now you know how exercise improves not just lifespan but health span as well. So, make sure you’re doing a balanced workout that includes both cardiovascular and strength exercise as they’re both important for health span. Here’s hoping you have a long and active health span!
Science Daily. “Exercise Can Reduce Stroke Risk”
EndocrineWeb. “Type 2 Diabetes and Exercise “
BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2011; 12: 105. Published online 2011 May 20. doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-12-105.
UptoDate. “Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and evaluation of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women”
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