Viewpoints (The Doctors): Ladies, Start Moving!
For many of us, just hearing the term “physical fitness” is enough to elicit a groan. High school gyms and ill-filling uniforms! But promoting physical fitness is no longer optional. Being energetic, engaging in a variety of activities designed to keep us moving, is an essential part of good health. And, nowadays, everyone can find something that excites them and helps them sustain their interest in maintaining a high-activity lifestyle.
Surprisingly, though, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that an astounding percentage of women currently do not engage in recommended levels of physical activity--over 60%. A quarter of women in the United States aren’t active at all. This matters. Lack of activity impacts our risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even some cancer.
So we need exercise. A program of regular physical activity helps us maintain a healthy weight, reduce body fat and increase lean muscle mass. Exercise also helps people with arthritis have better control of arthritic pain, and helps women who suffer from depression and/or anxiety experience significant improvement. So, clearly there are many reasons why physicians and other health professions promote physical fitness.
The good news is that you don’t have to become a marathoner or a triathlete, nor do you have to lay out exorbitant amounts of money in order to improve your physical fitness. Daily amounts of moderate physical activity, such as walking, provide significant benefits. The current recommendation for women who are just starting out is to begin with 5–10 minutes of activity and gradually work their way up. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination). But consult with your personal physician before starting an exercise program, and keep an eye towards preventing injury. Never try to go from 0 to 60 mph in one go. It takes time and a sensible routine to achieve safe and effective results.
Finally, one of the important benefits of physical activity relates to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Here’s why: heart health and brain health are linked. We know that exercise helps promote heart health by preventing high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries). And, exercise helps ensure optimal blood flow to the brain. A brain that receives a good blood supply is much less likely to dement.
Nearly 1000 men and women with an average age of 71 participated in a study which found that those who had exercised over 5 years demonstrated brain skills (such as memory) at the same level as people 10 years younger. Aerobic exercise also leads to higher levels of an important protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This protein helps repair and protect brain cells. Finally, the hippocampus--the part of the brain associated with long-term memory storage--shrinks with age. But when a study group of sedentary folks ranging in age from 50–80 simply walked around a track for 40 minutes a day, three times a week, for 6 months, researchers found that the size of their hippocampi actually increased, while those of a control group who did not exercise shrank.
So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to start moving--and remember to get your physician’s okay if you haven’t previously been active. Good luck and enjoy!
Penny Stern, MD is the Director of Preventive Medicine at the Katz Institute for Women’s Health at Northwell Health. The Katz Institute for Women’s Health is a champion for women’s health and wellness. Katz Women’s Health is led by Stacey E. Rosen, MD and Jennifer H. Mieres, MD, cardiologists who are passionate about recognizing the distinct health needs of women, and empowering women with information and resources to optimize their health and well-being.