It helps you live longer, lose weight, and gain a stronger heart. It can help you cope with stress and depression and boost your self-esteem. Exercise: It’s the best medicine available, yet few doctors are going to write you a prescription for a daily 30-minute jog.
“Millions of people in our society suffer from a ridiculous number of health problems—some major, some minor that could become major—because they lack basic fitness,” writes Jordan Metzl, MD, in his new book The Exercise Cure. And it’s not just making us fat and lazy—it’s also bankrupting the nation. “Based on current estimates, the United States spends more than $2.6 trillion—17 percent of the gross national product—on health care. That’s $8,300 per person,” he adds. “And somehow we rank 28th in the world for life expectancy.”
If you’re sick of being sick, and of paying through the nose for expensive drugs that don’t work, Dr. Metzl says that a simple exercise prescription could be just what you need. In fact, he reviewed all the research on exercise as a potent therapeutic agent and outlined quite a few conditions in his book that can be treated just as effectively, if not more so—with exercise as with drugs. Here are nine:
There’s the day-to-day anxiety we all suffer from, worries over work, money, and family issues. Then there is chronic clinical anxiety that can stem from other mental health issues like depression. Exercise can be helpful for both, since it releases feel-good endorphins and provides an immediate mood lift. And people who exercise are 25 percent less likely to develop anxiety than people who don’t, research has shown.
Best exercises: For chronic anxiety sufferers, meditative exercises that focus on breathing, such as yoga, are best, as they work to calm a nervous system that’s on overdrive. For general day-to-day anxiety, any regular exercise is fine, although the higher the intensity, the better.
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While there is no cure for ADHD, exercise can improve focus, still fidgeting, and regulate emotions in both children and adults with the disorder. Exercise temporarily raises levels of dopamine, yielding results similar to the drugs Ritalin and Adderall. It also stimulates the part of the brain responsible for decision making and impulse control, and at its most basic, exercise alleviates tension that can arise from dealing with this often-frustrating condition.
Best exercises: Adults can benefit from any exercise, while kids are better off engaging in structured aerobic activity that fosters teamwork and boosts their self-esteem.
#3: Memory Loss/Cognition Problems
Exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain, something that can be hindered by heart problems like high cholesterol and hardened arteries; after all, a healthy brain depends on a healthy heart. In addition to counteracting poor cardiovascular health, exercise stimulates growth and adaptation in the brain, particularly in areas that control memory, finds a growing body of research. Those studies have shown that adults who exercise score higher on tests of memory, attention, decision making, multitasking, and planning.
Best exercises: Anything, particularly if it’s new. “Repetition of a familiar task doesn’t seem to stimulate nearly the same brain growth as learning a new skill,” Dr. Metzl writes. “Learn to square dance, do tai chi, play tennis, do a martial art. Or, alternatively, simply hike a new trail, plant a new garden, or change your cycling route.”
#4: Sleep Problems
Pumping iron is just as good at helping you get your z’s as popping pills, and multiple studies have shown that people who exercise experience deeper, higher-quality sleep than people who don’t, Dr. Metzl writes. Not only that, but insufficient sleep is linked to a whole host of health problems that exercise can counteract: weight gain, fatigue, lethargy, heart disease, and an inability to cope with stress, just to name a few. Weight gain can also cause or exacerbate sleep apnea, a condition that can interfere with a good night’s rest. So if you suffer from sleep apnea, you have another reason to hit the gym.
Best exercises:A 30-minute session of exercise of any sort is all it takes to improve sleep quality, Dr. Metzl says, but meditative exercises, such as yoga or tai chi, are particularly effective.
It seems counterintuitive, but if you have asthma, the more you exercise, the less you’ll suffer; studies have found that improving your cardiovascular health reduces the severity of asthma symptoms. Furthermore, asthma is frequently made worse by weight gain because fat cells can produce inflammation, which causes asthma to flare up. And what’s the best way to beat the bulge? Exercise.
Best exercises: Anything that interests you, be it cardio or strength training or an outdoor sport. If you do exercise outdoors, be sure to avoid any environmental triggers—mold, pollen, pollution, or even really cold air—that might trigger an attack.
#6: Erectile Dysfunction and Low Libido
Yes, exercise can help your sex life—whether you’re a guy or a girl. Erectile dysfunction (ED) and low sex drive can stem from stress, poor sleep quality and the fatigue it causes, and poor circulation caused by sedentary lives, but they can also result from heart problems and metabolic disorders, all conditions that benefit from exercise. Exercise even combats depression, and may rule out the need for antidepressants that kill your sex drive and your ability to maintain an erection.
Best exercises:Any type of lower-body exercise will improve your circulation below the waist and help with ED. One exception is biking, which can put stress on the genital area. You can boost your libido with any exercise—provided you do it as a couple!
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#7: PMS and Menopause-related Symptoms
Studies have shown that women going through menopause or suffering PMS symptoms who exercised saw a reduction in their symptoms, compared with women in control groups who didn’t exercise regularly. Why? Women with PMS and menopause symptoms suffer from mood swings, anxiety, and depression, and in addition to being a natural energy- and mood-booster, movement helps alleviate the hormonal shifts common in both conditions. For older women, exercise can increase bone density, which drops as you age, and it can counteract cardiovascular disease and obesity, the risks of which increase as you go through menopause, due to hormonal changes.
Best exercises: For menopausal women, a combination of aerobic and strength training, but aerobic exercise has been shown sufficient for reducing PMS symptoms. Also, yoga, tai chi, or Pilates counteract stress and other hormone-driven emotional swings.
#8: Lower-Back, Hip, Knee, and Neck Pain
Pretty much any form of pain can reduced by exercise because many people’s pain can be attributed to sitting at a desk all day and other markers of a sedentary lifestyle, stress, and obesity—all of which exercise can alleviate. Many forms of pain are caused by weak muscles in an affected area; for instance, knee pain can be attributed to a weak iliotibial band, the tendon that runs along the outside of your thigh. Shoulder and neck pain might come from sitting hunched over a computer for long stretches of time.
Best exercises: Strength training and stretches around the affected area, and Dr. Metzl provides detailed exercises for each different type of pain in his book.
Osteoarthritis causes pain and inflammation around your joints due to the wearing away of cartilage, which protects your joints. But don’t let the pain deter you from exercising. For one, staying active helps you lose weight, which reduces stress on painful joints. And, as with other forms of pain, exercise, particularly strength training, strengthens muscles around those painful joints so the muscles can relieve some of the pressure being placed on them. Finally, Dr. Metzl writes, inactivity can cause cartilage to atrophy, exacerbating an already painful problem.
Best exercises: Weight-bearing cardio exercises, such as walking, swimming, or water aerobics; basic strength training, based on how much pain you’re experiencing; and stretching to improve muscle flexibility.