Two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek and Roman civilizations both acknowledged the beneficial effects of regular strenuous exercise. Today, however, people tend to look to fad diets and ignore the importance of daily physical activity. Whereas even as recently as fifty years ago the average American would cumulatively walk four or five miles a day, today the average American walks less than five miles per week. Not surprisingly, Americans are increasingly obese – in fact the USA leads the world in both morbid obesity and the percentage of population that is chronically overweight. The result is a dramatically increased susceptibility to a wide range of cancers and neurodegeneration as well as cardiovascular disease and skeletal failure.
For those seeking to lose weight, exercise is the number one change that will produce results for almost everyone. This is because the body responds to the demands being placed on it by changing levels of key hormones that in turn reduce appetite and stimulate a cascade of helpful biological changes. Until recently, however, the mechanisms by which exercise reduces our risk of cancer and various other diseases was not understood. In the last couple of years, research has uncovered some of the major ways in which exercise promotes better health and, incidentally, longer life.
The cells in the body are constantly filling up with proteins that have done their job and are now deformed “junk.” In a healthy body, the process of autophagy (Greek for “self eating”) removes these harmful junk proteins so they can’t accidentally damage the cell. But in people who don’t exercise, this mechanism slows down dramatically. As a result, cells become damaged and that damage leads to cancer, neurodegeneration like Alzheimer’s Disease, heart attacks, and much greater susceptibility to viral and bacterial illnesses. Because strenuous exercise causes the body to break down a lot of proteins, the net result is to stimulate the autophagy process which not only mops up the proteins broken down during exercise but also the other junk proteins normally produced in the course of cellular activity. And with this junk removed, the cells can function properly and remain healthy.
Unfortunately most people already know that exercise is beneficial – the problem is acting on the knowledge. But until more people take greater responsibility for their own health we’re going to see an ever-increasing amount of disease and suffering in our society because the way we live is fundamentally harmful to us.