Chapter 3 A - Physical Activity: The “Silver Bullet” of Health PDF  | Print |  E-mail

 

3Physical Activity: The “Silver Bullet” of Health

Don W. Morgan, Ph.D., FACSM

Everyone needs physical activity and exercise. You can practice all of the other principles of good health, but unless an active lifestyle is included with these, optimum health can be little more than a fanciful dream.

A well-rounded physical activity program develops endurance, strength, and flexibility. When physical activity occurs in the great out doors and away from the pollution of big cities, one may experience the blessings of the healing rays of the sun and deep drafts of fresh, oxygen-filled air in addition to reaping the benefits of exercise.

Many scientific studies have confirmed the value of physical activity and exercise in maintaining health and as therapy for healing. In this chapter, Don Morgan provides us with helpful guidelines for those desiring to experience those benefits—even when one may not be able to keep a garden or tread through the wonders of nature (God’s original plan) His emphasis is directed toward utilizing the benefits of exercise to prevent many of the leading causes of illness and death in our modern society. (Editorial comment)

Chapter contents

A) What is physical fitness?

B) Health burdens of physical inactivity

C) Health benefits of physical activity

D) Physical activity guidelines

E) The physical activity pyramid

F) Finding time to be active

G) Stepping into health

H) The spiritual dimension of physical activity

I) Conclusion

In the 1930s, children would huddle around the radio and listen to a program called “The Lone Ranger.” In this program, the Lone Ranger, a masked rider, and Tonto, his trusty sidekick, would ride their horses on the western plains, capturing lawbreakers and desperados. Part of the lore of the Lone Ranger was that he used silver bullets to bring outlaws to justice. In modern times, the phrase “silver bullet” has come to signify any method or practice that brings miraculous results or has extreme effectiveness.

In the United States, chronic health conditions like hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cancer are sickening and killing millions of people. While scientists have not yet found a miracle drug or pill that can wipe out all of these diseases, researchers have begun to discover that regular physical activity provides so many health benefits that it’s about as close to a “silver bullet” of health as you’ll ever find.

In this chapter, I want to examine what it means to be physically fit and identify some of the health burdens associated with physical inactivity. I also want to discuss some of the physical and mental benefits that result from adopting a physically active lifestyle and describe practical ways of developing and maintaining lifelong fitness. The chapter will end by highlighting the spiritual dimension of physical activity.

A) What is physical fitness?

Most people would readily agree that professional athletes are physically fit. The speed, endurance, and strength displayed by these athletes enable them to perform at the elite levels of their particular sport. A key question, however, is whether such a high degree of physical fitness is necessary to obtain meaningful health benefits. For the average person, being physically fit does not require running a marathon in under three hours, bench pressing 225 pounds, or throwing a baseball 90 miles per hour (although any of these achievements would certainly be noteworthy!). Rather, for most people, a more realistic definition of physical fitness is “the ability to last, to bear up, to withstand stress, and to persevere under difficult physical circumstances where an unfit person would need assistance or give up.” Based on this description, when you’re fit, you have the strength and energy to face whatever physical challenges come your way. How does this translate to real life? Well, suppose you arrive for a meeting that takes place on the fifth floor of an office building and discover that the elevator isn’t working. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that you have the stamina to climb the stairs to your meeting without being totally out of breath? Or, if you need to carry heavy grocery bags from your car to your kitchen, could you accomplish this task or would you need someone to help you? Or, let’s say you’re invited to go on a 3-mile hike in the country with friends you haven’t seen in years. Would you be ready to take advantage of this invitation to breathe fresh air and soak up some sunshine, or would you have to decline this opportunity to engage in active fellowship?

In my view, physical fitness is not something that only highly-trained athletes possess. Rather, it is a positive health attribute that can be attained by anyone at any stage of life. By incorporating physical activity into your daily routine, you’ll achieve a level of fitness that will increase your ability to function with greater vitality and purpose.

B) Health burdens of physical inactivity

It has been estimated that about 50% of American adults do not receive enough physical activity to improve their health and nearly one in four adults report no leisure-time physical activity. The combination of a poor diet and physical inactivity led to 365,000 deaths in the United States in the year 2000, a death rate exceeded only by tobacco use. With respect to the contribution of sedentary living to chronic disease, physical inactivity accounts for 22% of coronary heart disease, 22% of colon cancer, 18% of osteoporosis fractures, 12% of diabetes and hypertension, and 5% of breast cancers.

C) Health benefits of physical activity

Results from many studies have shown that our bodies undergo positive physiological and structural adaptations when reasonable and physical demands are placed upon them. Participation in regular physical activity is linked to a decreased risk of early death, coronary heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. The risks of adverse health conditions such as high cholesterol or triglycerides, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome are also lower when physical activity is performed routinely.

Regular physical activity is vital for maintaining joint structure and function, muscle strength, and healthy bones. Exercise may be particularly helpful for individuals with arthritis, because it can aid in preserving or restoring range of motion and flexibility around affected joints. Physical activity also enhances joint stability by increasing muscle strength and endurance. Relative to bone strength, physical activity begun early in life contributes to higher peak bone mass later in life. Greater lifetime physical activity is related to higher levels of bone mineral mass and a lowered risk of hip fracture in men and postmenopausal women. In addition, gains in muscle strength and bone health produced by weight-bearing activities, like walking and resistance training, can also be very useful in helping older adults live independently and reduce their risk of falling.

Aside from improving physical health, engaging in regular physical activity seems to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve one’s psychological state. Findings from some studies, for instance, suggest that physical activity may actually protect against the development of depression. In addition, when faced with psychological stress, individuals with good aerobic fitness levels display a lower level of cardiovascular stress compared to unfit persons.

D) Physical activity guidelines

How much physical activity is needed to improve one’s health status? According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need to engage in a minimum of 2 hours and 30 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. 30 minutes of activity, 5 days a week) or 1 hour and 15 minutes each week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. 25 minutes of activity, 3 days a week) or an equivalent weekly combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. To encourage regularity in being active, this type of activity should be performed throughout the week and accumulated in time periods lasting at least 10 minutes. When individuals engage in moderate-intensity physical activity, their breathing rate is increased slightly, but they can still carry on a conversation. Another simple way to describe moderate-intensity physical activity is that on a 0-10 scale (where “0” is sitting and “10” is the highest level of effort possible), moderate-intensity physical activity is 5 or 6. In contrast, a person who performs vigorous-intensity physical activity can’t say more than a couple words without pausing for a breath and would rate this effort as 7 or 8 on a 10-point scale.

In addition to strengthening the heart and lungs, it is important to improve musculoskeletal health so that daily living tasks, like carrying groceries, climbing and descending stairs, and getting in and out of a chair, can be accomplished without undue difficulty. Based on current health guidelines, overall body strengthening exercises that involve the major muscle groups (e.g. hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms should be performed at least twice a week. If you don’t have access to home-based resistance equipment or you’re not a member of a commercial fitness center, you can buy inexpensive resistance bands for performance exercises, like push-ups and sit-ups, that use body weight for resistance. Another excellent alternative is to watch the “Body and Spirit” show on the 3ABN television network. In this daily program, host Dick Nunez does an excellent job of presenting a wide array of strengthening routines that anybody (e.g., young, old, men and women) can perform at home.

Many types of physical activity fit existing recommendations for moderate-intensity aerobic activity, including brisk walking, water aerobics, slow bicycle riding, doubles tennis, and general gardening. If you’re healthy enough and interested in participating in more intense activities, you might consider jogging, swimming laps, singles tennis, bicycle riding at a faster speed, heavy gardening, or uphill hiking. As you can see, there are many physical activity options to choose from that can produce good health. Some of these activities are more lifestyle-oriented, (e.g., gardening and raking leaves), while others (e.g., walking, bicycling, and swimming) might be a part of a more formal exercise program. Both the lifestyle program or a formal exercise program, or some combination of the two, can be personalized to create a physical activity profile that is enjoyable and compatible with your daily routine.

If you have been sedentary for a long time and you want to become more active, a reasonable approach would be to select moderate-intensity activities and focus on gradually increasing the duration and intensity of your efforts. This incremental approach has been shown to promote exercise adherence, lower the risk of injury, and increase the likelihood that a permanent lifestyle change will occur. Persons with chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, or those who are at high risk for these diseases, should consult a physician before beginning a new physical activity program.

 

 

E) The physical activity pyramid

As you start to incorporate physical activity into your life, you will begin to build a foundation for good health that can last a lifetime. To help visualize this concept, the concept of a physical activity pyramid is presented below.

 

The base of the pyramid is “Lifestyle Physical Activity,” in which the goal is to accumulate at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity. What are some practical ways of meeting this goal? Consider parking your car farther away from the entrance to your work location or shopping mall entrance. If you use public transportation, get on or off the bus or train early so that you can walk a one or two blocks to your final destination. Taking this last point one step further, instead of selecting the most direct walking route between Point A and Point B (i.e., a straight line), you might “meander” just a bit, thus increasing your total activity time by a few minutes. Take a walk during a portion of your lunch break or use the stairs instead of the elevator when the opportunity arises. Rather than using the drive-in teller to handle money transactions at your local bank, park your car, walk into and out of your local bank, and record some extra steps on your pedometer. If you’re at an airport and you’re not overloaded with baggage, avoid the people-moving escalator and walk to your departure gate or to baggage claim. Of course, walking the dog will add some activity to your schedule (besides being greatly appreciated by your pet!). Other possibilities include playing active games with your children, working in your garden, or playing active games like baseball or basketball at the local park. If it’s safe and feasible, walking to and from the local convenience store to purchase small, easily carried items can provide a boost to your daily activity level and save some gas money. Lastly, if you want to be prepared to be active at a moment’s notice, keep a comfortable pair of walking or running shoes in your office or car so that you can take a short walk when the chance to do so presents itself.

For some, accumulating at least 30 minutes of daily lifestyle physical activity won’t be a problem. If you’re a floor nurse who is constantly walking or pushing patients in a wheelchair, you may already exceed the level of physical activity needed to obtain good health outcomes. Similarly, if you spend several hours a day gardening or working in your yard, you may be receiving the blessings of better health, not to mention the accomplishment of growing your own food and having lovely flowers to decorate your yard and home. The second section of the physical activity pyramid is labeled “Exercise for Aerobic Fitness.” Physical activities that consume large amounts of oxygen include walking, running, bicycling, swimming, and cross-country skiing. A reasonable recommendation would be to perform these activities five to seven days per week, for somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes per session. As mentioned earlier, health gains from aerobic exercise can be realized in activity bouts as short as 10 minutes, and it is important to remember that it may take some time to reach the aerobic fitness guideline. As you develop better endurance, you’ll be able to exercise for longer periods and derive even greater health benefits. In fact, to reap additional health gains, adults should perform 5 hours each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. 60 minutes, 5 times a week) or 2 hours and 30 minutes a week (e.g. 50 minutes, 3 times a week) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or an equivalent weekly mix of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.

As you continue to move up the physical activity pyramid, you come to a section entitled “Exercise for Muscular Fitness.” Muscles and bones can be strengthened by weightlifting, sit-ups, and push-ups, or physical labor like chopping wood, shoveling dirt, and raking leaves. To achieve a healthy level of musculoskeletal fitness, these types of activities should be performed two to three times per week. Stretching the muscles of the upper and lower body should also be done on a regular basis to maintain and improve joint flexibility.

At the very top of the pyramid is a section entitled “Reduce Inactivity.” The emphasis here is to consciously avoid extended periods of physical inactivity during the day. This goal can be accomplished by reducing the time spent in sedentary pursuits like driving a car, watching television, sitting at a computer, playing video games, and … watching other people participate in physical activity!

If you’ve been relatively inactive for awhile, a sensible approach to raising your physical activity level is to start slowly. Choose activities that you feel comfortable doing and look for opportunities to move and be active throughout the day. Increase your physical activity level at a comfortable pace and aim, over time, to attain the guidelines and recommendations for health-producing exercise that were identified earlier. Don’t expect to improve your fitness level overnight- be patient and allow your body to gradually adapt to higher levels of activity and exercise participation. Not to worry, though—the important point is to start where you are, with what you can do, and slowly increase the duration and intensity level of physical activity as your stamina improves. And, while you may begin by choosing just one activity, you may decide at some point to include other activities to maintain your interest level and provide some variety to your fitness program.

F) Finding time to be active

As you might imagine, the most common excuse cited for not exercising is lack of time. With a busy job and two children who are involved in school, church, and extracurricular activities, my wife and I often wish there were more hours in the day! How can we overcome this barrier to being more active? As pointed out earlier, one way is to add small bits of physical activity time to your everyday routine. It is also important to recognize that we tend to make time to do the things that really matter to us, whether it’s spending time with friends or shopping at the mall. If being in good health is a high priority in your life, then I encourage you to seriously consider rearranging the contents of your daily schedule so that you can carve out some time each and every day to be physically active. You’ll never regret this decision.

G) Stepping into health

Walking has been shown to reduce the death risk from heart disease and diabetes, increase bone density in the legs and trunk, and diminish the risk of colon cancer. Given these improvements in overall health, I often recommend walking as a “first step” towards improving physical fitness. With the growing popularity of pedometers, or step-measuring devices, it is now possible to quantify the total amount of ambulatory physical activity that a person performs each day. While a 10,000 steps per day guideline has been viewed by some as a reasonable level of daily physical activity for people to try and achieve, this guideline may be too low for children and too high for sedentary individuals, some older adults, and persons with chronic health problems like arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. Hence, I believe a prudent approach to using pedometers is to measure your baseline step count over a 5–7 day period and increase it by 10% each week until you reach a daily stepping level that can be maintained over the long-term.

H) The spiritual dimensions of physical activity

Have you ever noticed that nature is full of motion? Dr. David Nieman, a colleague of mine, describes this phenomenon by writing that “there is a God-given design in nature for action and movement. Consider the flowers that open and close daily, the circulating ocean currents and orbiting planets, or the powerful onrush of the wind. Water is fresh and clean if taken from a rushing stream, but unhealthful when drawn from a stagnant pool.” Motion is also a characteristic feature of how our bodies function. Oxygen moves into our lungs as we breathe. The pumping activity of the heart sends nutrient-enriched blood to nourish our body organs. The transmission of electrical impulses down the nerves activates muscles to pull on bones, causing our limbs to move. Taken together, these observations of the natural world and the physiological processes which sustain us internally demonstrate that physical movement is the currency of all living things. When we daily energize our bodies with physical activity, we fit perfectly into God’s plan of creation for the universe—a plan in which movement and activity are the norm and not the exception!!

Living an active lifestyle also allows you to be a more vibrant witness for Jesus Christ. Dr. Gary Fraser, Director of Adventist Health Study—2, has stated, “Vigorous, healthy people are more available to engage in Christian service than people who are infirm. When we train people in healthy living, we are equipping disciples for longer, more effective Christian service.” Being representatives of Christ in this world, we are called to do all that we can to spread His gospel and to minister to people’s needs. When you are physically fit, you’re better able to accomplish these lifesaving tasks.

I) Conclusion

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The first wealth is health.” Mounting evidence reveals that people of all ages can substantially improve their health, fitness, and overall well-being by becoming more physically active. Although modern technology has made everyday living less burdensome, it has also made it easier to be more sedentary. To counter this trend, each of us must create and take advantage of opportunities to accumulate small amounts of physical activity throughout the day. We must change our way of thinking so that physical activity is viewed as an integral part of our daily lives, rather than something that is easily neglected or avoided.

God’s richest blessings of physical and spiritual health await you as you begin to live the physically-active life. He knows that our physical and spiritual health thrive only when we are active in both body and spirit. He wants nothing less than for us to be in top physical condition so that we can meet and overcome the challenges of daily living and tell others about the message of wellness and good health. Start walking down the road to better fitness and begin to reap the blessings of good health that God wants to bestow upon you. It’s a journey that can last a lifetime.

 
© Copyright 2010 by A Place of Healing.