Your RX-ercise

Exercise is a vital part of the prescription for recovering from health crises and preventing future damage.

Exercise isn’t just essential for good health and weight loss.It’s also a powerful tool in the body’s efforts to prevent, recover from and delay diseases such as arthritis, cancer and even Alzheimer’s. 

Cancer and Heart Disease

“It’s fairly well established that people who exercise have a lower risk of colorectal cancer and breast cancer,” says epidemiologist I-Min Lee, MD, a co-author of Exercise: A Program You Can Live With.

That’s why cancer treatment programs have begun incorporating exercise. They’re following the lead of cardiac rehabilitation programs, which have shown that physically active heart patients are more likely to recover well. Lee and her colleagues in 2014 reported that male cancer survivors who exercised had lower rates of death. The minimum recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity was sufficient to lower mortality rates. 

Arthritis

Just as exercising can prevent arthritis by keeping muscles strong and excess pounds from overloading joints, exercising after a diagnosis of arthritis can limit aches and pains and improve movement, says sports medicine specialist Bashir Zikria, MD, a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). “One of the strongest recommendations the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has for nonoperative management of arthritis is a physical therapy program of supervised exercises,” Zikria says.

Continue to watch your weight, he advises, and when you’re ready to exercise on your own, start with low-impact activities such as swimming, walking and bicycling, which are great for joints. You can increase your workout time gradually as you make exercise a part of your daily routine, preferably in morning sessions before your day gets busy.

Pregnancy-Related Back Pain

Your baby’s birth doesn’t guarantee an end to the lower-back pain you might have experienced during pregnancy, orthopedic surgeon Zbigniew Gugala, MD, says in a 2015 literature review published in the AAOS journal. For about half of pregnant women with lower-back pain, the pain continues after delivery. “As ligaments—which connect bones to each other—stretch and the uterus expands as the baby grows, they put excessive stress on the spine and pelvis,” Gugala says. “This can lead to low-back pain, pelvic-girdle pain or both.”

Talk with your obstetrician about an exercise regimen that makes sense for your fitness level, incorporating flexibility, stretching and muscle-strengthening exercises such as water workouts, aerobics and yoga.

Osteoporosis

Exercise strengthens the musculoskeletal system and improves balance, making us less vulnerable to osteoporosis and the chance of fall-related fractures, Lee says. Plus, some studies have blamed inactivity for much of the bone deterioration seen as people age. So, it follows that “resting” your bones after a diagnosis of osteoporosis is not the answer.

The AAOS and the National Osteoporosis Foundation note that bone is living tissue rebuilding itself all the time. Talk with your doctor about the benefits of low-impact, weight-bearing exercises such as walking.

Alzheimer's Disease

“We know that physical activity improves blood flow to the brain,” Lee says, “and we believe that helps with cognitive function.” Exercise also reduces the body’s misdirected inflammation, a risk factor associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other health conditions, she says. Some preliminary reports have found that even in Alzheimer’s early stages, people who did regular aerobic exercise showed modest improvements.

What Exactly Does Exercise Do?

Becky Thompson, running and fitness specialist at Gwinnett Medical Center, says participating in physical activity improves health by:

  • Strengthening the heart and lungs
  • Increasing blood flow to the heart and brain, which is believed to help cognitive function
  • Improving glucose and insulin processing, reducing the likelihood of prediabetes and diabetes
  • Lowering blood pressure, which reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, including strokes and ministrokes (a precursor to cognitive decline)
  • Strengthening the musculoskeletal system and improving balance, which reduce the likelihood of falls, fractures and osteoporosis
  • Reducing inflammation, which is a common theme among many diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight, thereby reducing inflammation and risks for certain health conditions.