Exercise Is the Answer for All That Ails You
Working out does more than simply prevent health problems. It can actually treat disease. This story is part of Exercise Is Medicine, a special report from Elemental that covers the incredible healing benefits of exercise, why doctors are prescribing workouts, the science of exercise for depression, and expert-designed exercises anyone can do. Transformation DM found this article by Markham Heid and found it extremely relevant for our readers and wanted to share.
or a study published in 2019 in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences, a team of doctors at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio split up 59 people with Parkinson’s disease into two groups. Three days a week for eight weeks, both groups completed a 40-minute exercise session on a stationary bicycle. One of the groups rode at a high-intensity pace while the other group rode at their own slower pace.
By the end of the study period, both groups — but especially the high-intensity group — scored significantly better on several measures of mobility, including tasks that tested their flexibility and strength. A month after the study’s publication, one of its leaders received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study whether exercise can actually slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. If the study is successful, exercise could become the first known treatment to slow the progression of the condition.
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative condition that affects roughly one million Americans. Slowly but ceaselessly, people with the disease experience cell death in a part of the brain known as the basal ganglia, which serves many functions but primarily controls movement and coordination. Hand tremors and jerky movements are typical during the early stages of Parkinson’s. Over time, these symptoms spread and worsen and are accompanied by a steady loss of stability, flexibility, and coordination as well as problems with thinking, mood, and memory.
According to a 2018 research review from the Mayo Clinic, no drug has ever demonstrated the ability to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. But the same Mayo Clinic review concludes that physical activity provides a “direct brain effect” that can both improve symptoms among people with Parkinson’s and, in some cases, maybe even delay the disease’s advance. How is this possible? Research has found that exercise can raise the brain’s levels of certain chemicals that reduce the loss of neurons and promote improved thinking and cognitive function in people with Parkinson’s. In other words, there’s evidence that exercise has the ability to selectively target and improve multiple aspects of the disease through a number of underlying neurochemical mechanisms.
For maladies ranging from autoimmune diseases to depression, doctors and medical researchers are embracing the idea that physical activity has tremendous therapeutic power for those who are unwell.
“Exercise is absolutely the most effective therapy we have for Parkinson’s, more effective than any drug,” says Michael Zigmond, a Parkinson’s researcher and professor emeritus in the Department of Neurology at the University of Pittsburgh. Zigmond says exercise exerts a number of benefits in the brains of people with Parkinson’s — benefits that not only combat the disease’s deleterious effects but that also address many of the changes associated with old age. “It increases protective neurotrophic factors, it lowers oxidative stress, it reduces inflammation, it repairs DNA damage, it increases dopamine release, and it does this all over the brain,” he explains. “No drug can do that.”
The idea that exercise is good for the human body is a truism. No one doubts it. According to a large 2015 perspective paper on the health benefits of exercise published in the journal Cell Metabolism: “The human species evolved to perform and endure habitual [physical activity] … it is not surprising that its absence can lead to devastating physiological and clinical consequences.” But until recently, few people regarded physical activity as a form of medicine capable of managing or treating disease.
That’s changing. For maladies ranging from pain conditions and autoimmune diseases to cancer, heart disease, and mental health disorders like depression, doctors and medical researchers are embracing the idea that physical activity has tremendous therapeutic power for those who are unwell.
“Regular exercise may be the most powerful medicine we have — more powerful in most cases than any pill or procedure,” says Dr. Robert Sallis, a family and sports medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente. “We literally have thousands of years of data, going back to Hippocrates, that exercise has a powerful therapeutic effect.”
The history of exercise as medicine
The world’s leading medical minds have long recognized the healing power of physical activity. “There were physicians in India around 600 B.C. who regarded physical activity as medicine, and exercise was a big part of ancient Chinese medicine as well,” says Jack Berryman, professor emeritus of medical history at the University of Washington.
During the reign of the Roman Empire and for more than 1,000 years after its collapse, medical practice and theory were heavily influenced by the opinions of the physician Galen, who could rightly be called the father of lifestyle medicine. According to some of Berryman’s published scholarship, it was Galen’s view that human health was largely determined by a person’s approach to the “things nonnatural,” which included diet, sleep, and exercise. Galen believed that a moderate approach to each was a cornerstone of both disease prevention and therapy.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians embraced “heroic” medical procedures such as bloodletting, sweating, blistering, and the use of tinctures containing mercury or other poisonous compounds — all of which were thought to restore the body’s essential fluids to a healthful state of balance. “George Washington died because the top physicians in the country at that time bled him to death,” Berryman says.
But Galen’s beliefs never completely died out. The concept of “physical education” and the importance of exercise for human health blossomed among many American doctors during the 1800s. Physicians at that time oversaw the construction of many of the country’s first gymnasiums, and a major component of their training and messaging to patients involved the primacy of regular physical activity for the maintenance of health and the treatment of disease.
But then, by the early part of the 20th century, germ theory and other major insights into illness and disease revolutionized the medical profession. Preventive and lifestyle medicine receded as professional doctors turned their attention to the treatment of illness with drugs and surgery, Berryman says. At the same time, physical education began to focus more on sports and games that catered to athletes and less so as a means for the average person to maintain or improve health. “Physical education wasn’t focused on individual health anymore, and medicine wasn’t really focused on lifestyle or exercise anymore,” Berryman says. “It took a while for the two to come back together.”
While some doctors today are still resistant to the idea that exercise can outperform pills or medical procedures, many are embracing the idea that exercise is a potent treatment for a variety of diseases.
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