Healing through Exercise: Scientifically-Proven Ways to Prevent and Overcome Illness and Lengthen Your Life, by Jörg Blech (Da Capo Press, 2009) Originally published as Heilen mit Bewergung (S. Fischer Verlag, 2009)
We all know exercise is good for us, right? So who needs yet another book telling us so?
Knowing what we should be doing is one thing, but actually doing it is another, and Healing through Exercise provides motivation in spades.
Beware the cure that is marketed as a panacea, we are told: if it claims to fix all ills, it’s probably a fraud. That’s sound advice, but Jörg Blech makes a convincing case that simple, regular exercise is as close to a cure-all as we’ll ever find. Whether the issue is heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cholesterol, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, back pain, cancer, impotence, ADHD, depression, brain development, immune system health, stress overload, or “old age,” moderate, regular exercise is essential—and in some cases even sufficient—for preventing illness and restoring health. We’re more familiar with the preventative side, but Blech cites study after study showing how exercise can even reverse existing damage. It’s never too late to take advantage of the benefits of exercise. (Note to self: this should be incentive to get started at any age, but never an excuse for procrastination.)
The specific studies and amazing results showing the power of exercise to heal are too numerous to detail, although as usual I’ve provided some teasers below. I highly recommend that everyone find and read a copy of this book, especially if you are young, old, middle-aged, or have children.
The bottom line? Get moving! It’s critically important, the best thing you can do for your physical and mental health. Get your children moving! It’s essential for the development of their brains as well as their bodies. It doesn’t need to be onerous. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging, or bicycling) five times per week seems to be the threshold at which all sorts of wonderful effects begin. Make that 60 minutes, and throw in some light strength training a couple of days per week, and you will be giving your body and mind a real treat. Furthermore, the effect is cumulative, so every little bit of action you add to your day will make a difference.
According to the evolutionary biologists, we have to rethink the old view of exercise: movement is by no means just a useful added way to improve our health. In fact, it is absolutely necessary for the human body to work normally.
You can debate all day about the value of an evolutionary perspective, but whether you say “evolved” or “designed,” we surely weren’t meant to spend most of our days sitting.
In the United States, children grow up in a world that leaves no time and no room for physical activities. For most of the baby boomers, it was common either to walk or to ride a bicycle to school. In these days, kids are moved around in minivans, and teachers have a hard time advocating walking days. Once in school, students will rarely be challenged physically because many school systems struggle to finance a physical education program worthy of the name. At recess, video games and other gadgets have taken the role balls and skipping ropes used to occupy. The idle members of generation XXL spend their youths indoors, and they would rather travel online than by foot. Granted that some ten-year-olds design impressive Web pages, but many have difficulties climbing, jumping, or pitching a ball.
The abandonment of exercise is a global trend affecting not only kids growing up in American suburbia but also youngsters living in walkable areas of Europe. Wilhelm Nieblung has a doctor’s office in the idyllic Black Forest. As he puts it: “Many children in our town are not able to balance backwards.”
In [the] early years, while the brain downsizes and develops at the same time, it is extremely important that a child has sufficient physical exercise. Good coordination of the body helps to preserve nerve cells in the brain and promotes their wiring to each other. Evidence indicates children need a certain minimum amount of exercise to develop a brain malleable or plastic enough to adapt to ever-changing environments.
Children can develop their mental abilities properly only if they do enough running, jumping, and physical playing as well. Motor and cognitive skills develop in unison and stimulate each other within the brain. Researchers in the field of neuroanatomy at the University of Bielefeld sum up what that means for parents, children, and teachers: “Learning needs movement.”
If we train our motor abilities by exercising, at the same time we strengthen regions of the brain that are important for paying attention and other cognitive capabilities. Playing sports makes us smarter, and all children can benefit from this effect.
Physical activity not only enriches chemistry in the gray matter; it also alters the structure of the brain. First, exercise promotes the production of new nerve cells in the hippocampus…. Second, exercise creates new synapses, thereby establishing and maintaining the vast network of connected nerve cells in the brain.
The brain of an active creature produces especially high numbers of nerve cells that can be used to process … new stimuli. The new cells mature into fully functioning neurons when they are challenged with new tasks. In the absence of such challenges, it is thought, a big portion of the new nerve cells die before long. And in the absence of physical activity, the production of new nerve cells largely ceases.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that strikes with age…. Besides age, there are other risk factors. It may not be a good omen when family members have suffered from Alzheimer’s because that suggests a genetic predisposition to it..... These factors are hard to change … but there is another way to postpone the onset of the disease or to prevent it altogether: activities such as brisk walking or bicycle riding…. Older men aged 71 to 93 who walk at least two miles every day cut the risk of Alzheimer’s in half, compared to people the same age who walk only a quarter of a mile per day.
William E. Kraus at the Duke University Medical Center has found that a certain type of exercise is especially good at keeping lipoproteins in check: longer spells of moderate exercise seem to be more beneficial than shorter, more intensive workouts.
Exercise is … a proven and reliable remedy for people with hypertension, although this is not widely appreciated. [F]requently the treating doctors are to blame, says Hans-Georg Predel of the Sports University in Cologne, Germany. He has made the sobering observation that physicians “often don’t consider the effectiveness of an intervention without drugs and that they lack a sufficient expertise in prescribing lifestyle changes.”
If you, like me, have been subjected to regular bone-density (DEXA) scans since reaching a certain age, you will be interested to note that some countries—Germany is one—no longer pay for the procedure on the grounds that bone density measurements have been shown to be useless for preventing broken bones in the elderly. So have drugs prescribed for osteoporosis. What does help? Exercise.
Time and again, trials of menopausal women have confirmed that moderate aerobic and strength training make the spine stronger. And in order to reduce hip fractures, walking seems to be the best medicine.
Although exercise is one of the most potent and effective remedies in existence, it plays only a small role in medical-school training. For this reason, American doctors rarely recommend exercise. Even though some doctors do prescribe exercise, physicians can make a much greater profit with drugs and operations. Faith in the power of medicine is another reason why people tend to underestimate the value of exercise. The number of back surgeries has increased dramatically in recent years, while pills for high blood pressure and drugs to lower cholesterol have sales in the billions of dollars. This fuels the medical industry and might meet the expectations of many patients, but it still amounts to nothing more than tinkering with the symptoms.
Even when doctors are willing to use the new science of healing through exercise, they often find that patients would prefer an invasive procedure and drug regimen, rather than the supposedly silly advice of bicycling 30 minutes a day.
The sun is shining, the air is cool, and I need to go for a walk. See ya!