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The Magic Pill

by Andy Dappen and Kalie Wertz

People are always in search of magic pills - easy, cure-alls for their problems. When it comes to health issues, a cure-all (or at least a cure-most) for your heart, bones, brain, moods, metabolism, lungs, and muscles does exist and most of us know exactly what it is. We understand that if all of the health benefits of exercise could be packed into a pill people would take to it with even greater zeal than they take to junk food.

The trouble with exercise? It’s lacking on the ‘easy’ part of the formula. Unlike the no-sweat solution of swallowing a pill, exercise demands effort. This article takes a local look at ‘how’ to make exercise something you look forward to. First, however, we want discuss more about the ‘why’ of exercise. Why do it? Why is the pain worth the gain?

Increasingly, the public is hearing more about this on the Internet, in the media, and directly from doctors. The August Issue of Scientific American did a particularly good job of compiling information from well-conducted scientific studies and detailing what these studies reveal about how exercise impacts the body.

In brief, the article says, “the closest thing we have to a magic bullet for maintaining good health and mobility is regular physical activity.” Routine physical activity of moderate or vigorous intensity substantially reduces the risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and other ills. Research also shows that habitual exercise appears to facilitate learning and other cognitive functions. Even if you exercise regularly, however, too much sitting each day negates some of the health advantages gained.

Here are other benefits of exercise discussed in this science-based article.


  • Expanded cardiovascular capacity. Habitual exercising improves the efficiency of important organs like the lungs and heart. Exercise quickens breathing and activates the lungs to expand faster and wider. Meanwhile, routine exercise activates the heart into moving more blood with each beat.
  • Decreased heart disease. For some people, consistent exercise significantly reduces blood pressure, which is good for the heart. More importantly, research shows exercise makes ‘bad cholesterol’ (LDL) much better by changing the size of the LDL molecules in the bloodstream. Large LDL molecules are more stable and innocuous than small LDL molecules, which easily damage other cells. Exercise boosts the activity of an enzyme in fat and muscle tissue that creates more large LDL molecules and fewer small LDL cells.
  • Enhanced brain performance. Research has shown that chemical changes in the brain induced by aerobic exercise (e.g., jogging, swimming, biking, rowing) improve the ability to think, concentrate, organize, and plan. Newer controlled studies indicate exercise increases the size of the hippocampus in the area associated with remembering one’s surroundings.
  • Improved mood. Exercise gives many a heightened sense of awareness. Endorphins released to the brain during exercise make many who exercise feel better/happier and reduces symptoms of depression.
  • Enhanced muscle performance. Over time, exercise becomes easier and muscles become stronger. Frequent exercise prompts muscle fibers to become more efficient at using glucose. Frequent exercise also creates more mitochondria in muscle cells so more glucose can be burned when needed.
  • Reduced Diabetes. When the body calls for glucose to sustain exercise, the liver pumps sugar molecules into the bloodstream while the pancreas releases insulin (a hormone) commanding cells to pull this sugar out of the blood to produce energy. When exercise is a daily habit, muscles become more sensitive to insulin so the pancreas does not need to produce as much insulin. Doing more with less insulin is good for keeping the pancreas from being overtaxed -- ultimately this in important in preventing and/or stabilizing Type 2 diabetes.
  • Decreased cancer rates. Insulin promotes the proliferation of new cells, some of which are linked to breast and colon cancer. Doing more with less insulin is helpful here as well.
  • Fortified bones, improved coordination. Bone is living tissue that becomes stronger with exercise. Furthermore, exercise improves strength, coordination, and balance. All of this helps prevent falls and reduce fractures as people age.
  • Elevated energy use. Through the burning of sugars and fats, as well as by stabilizing many of the body’s internal systems, regular exercise helps control weight and reduce health issues associated with weight gain.
  • Genetics. There are quite a number of genes that are flipped on or off by changes in physical activity. The effect of any one gene is usually modest but these flippings happen across a wide array of cells, creating significant benefit.
  • Increased life expectancy and quality of life. Active people who meet the recommended guidelines for moderate exercise listed below live an average of 3.4 years longer than their inactive peers, while those exercising longer and more vigorously live an average of 4.2 years longer. Something this article did not discuss (but that most people who exercise attest to) is that quality of life is much improved by exercise -- people feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Photo: Regardless of your size, color, or type of collar -- exercise improves your health and happiness.

How Much is Enough?

Almost all movement at most any exertion level is good, but, within parameters, more movement at higher exertion levels is better still. Experts analyzing the body of well-conducted research have compiled current guidelines stating that the largest gains can be received through moderate (possible to talk while exercising) aerobic exercise five times a week for at least 30 minutes per session. Exercising longer (60 minutes) each day and/or exercising more vigorously (only able to say a few words, but not converse, while exercising) is better still but doesn’t see completely proportional benefits from the extra time invested.

In addition to aerobic exercise, current guidelines also recommend two 30-minute strength-training (or resistance) workouts per week. The benefits from aerobic exercise and strength training are significantly different and seem to come about by entirely different physiological mechanisms. So people engaged in both aerobic training and strength training receive greater health benefits than people following just one regimen.

Photo: Squats, lunges, burpees, pull-ups, or push ups all use your body weight to provide resistance for strength-training.

The conclusion of the Scientific American article: “Regular prolonged movement – at whatever intensity level can be safely managed—needs to be built into everyone’s daily habits and physical environments. It should become as easy as jumping in a car is now. We strongly recommend that doctors and other health care providers regularly write a prescription for exercise during routine office visits.”

Getting People to Exercise

Despite the overwhelming evidence available that exercise is a magic pill for improving both the quantity of life and the quality of life, the Scientific American article states only 52 percent of American adults are active enough to meet the aerobic exercise guidelines, 29 percent strengthen their muscles as recommended twice a week, and only 20 percent of Americans (1 in 5) meet the recommendations for both aerobic exercise and resistance training.

How do we engage the missing masses? Here in Central Washington we have possibilities that most places lack: Outdoor activities can make exercise fun, exciting, inspirational, relaxing, cleansing, and even spiritual. Hiking or jogging through open hills, mountain biking a trail or road riding an orchard road, paddling vigorously along the Columbia River, or rock climbing up local cliffs all provide excellent workouts that are interesting, scenic, and a lot more fun than running a city street or stair stepping indoors. Also, compared to exercising in town or indoors, nature also provides a calmer, more relaxing setting to disengage, switch gears, turn off the brain, and de-stress. Read this article for ideas on where to get started locally.

Spinning indoors on a stationary bike vs. mountain biking outdoors through the real deal -- one borders on drudgery the other on majesty. Read more about how to make exercise fun.