Patients tell MedShadow time and time again that physical activity, low impactor intense, makes a huge difference in their health and quality of life. It can help them control pain associated with conditions like Lupus or even limit feelings of depression. Sometimes it helps reduce the side effects of any treatments they need to take long term.
The most recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines outlined the ideal amounts of time that each person should aim to exercise per week based on current research, but it focused more heavily than its previous edition on two more important concepts.
Firstly, any amount of physical activity at any intensity level can be beneficial. If 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise seems out of reach for you due to your health or schedule, start with whatever you can manage. If you’re mostly sedentary, try increasing the time you spend doing light house cleaning, for example.
Secondly, it repeatedly mentioned that physical activity is not only useful for maintaining health, but can also help prevent disease and improve quality of life for those with chronic conditions, such as hypertension, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Scientists say that both healthy adults and those with chronic conditions could benefit from getting more physical activity each day. While both groups seem to be getting more exercise than they did 10 years ago, many adults would be healthier if they continued raising their physical activity level.
“Few people realize that the benefits of regular exercise extend far beyond just physical fitness,” said Morton Tavel, MD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Indiana School of Medicine. “What’s really special is the amount of exercise need not be of Olympic proportions. The ways that exercise helps us are almost too numerous to detail.”
In many of MedShadow’s articles, we mention that different types of exercise can help lessen symptoms of illness and reduce reliance on medications with side effects that can dampen your quality of life. Here are just some of the conditions that can be mitigated with regular exercise.
As always, be sure to discuss any exercise programs you’re interested in starting with your healthcare provider to ensure that you do so safely. Depending on your current level of fitness or health, you may need to make certain adjustments.
Exercise for Brain Health
The new guidelines emphasize that exercise can help protect your cognition.
Studies compared the effect of aerobic activity on brain skills between children diagnosed with ADHD and children who do not have ADHD. It was no surprise that both groups of children had improved cognitive skills with increased running around.
You might be able to prevent Alzheimer’s or delay its progression through aerobic exercise (running, walking, biking and any other activity that makes you breathe deeply) and even weightlifting. The theory is that exercise improves sleep, reduces inflammation in the brain, and increases a hormone that helps spur new brain-cell growth.
For people with Alzheimer’s disease, exercise can help make activities of daily living, such as eating and bathing, easier.
Exercise for Parkinson’s and MS
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s or MS, you’re probably aware that, some days, simple tasks like walking up the stairs can become challenging or even impossible. Exercise won’t cure your disease, but it may help strengthen the muscles you need to make getting around just a little bit easier.
If you’re not already exercising, the sooner you start after your diagnosis, the better, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. It’ll help you preserve your quality of life and may even help protect you from cognitive decline and depression.
Preserving your strength can also help prevent dangerous falls, according to a Cochrane Review, comprised of 25 studies published.
You’ll experience similar benefits of regular exercise—varying between aerobic, resistance and balance exercises—if you have MS, including improved mobility, strength, and overall quality of life.
Researchers told MedShadow that water aerobics, which allows MS patients to get an effective workout without overheating, and occupational therapy can both help you feel healthier.
There are a variety of Parkinson’s-specific workout regimens such as boxing and dancing, which you can read about on the Parkinson’s Foundation website. You can also contact the foundation directly for help finding a local exercise program for Parkinson’s at 1-800-4PD-INFO (1-800-473-4636) or by e-mailing [email protected].
Exercise for Pain
We all get aches and pains from time to time. For some of us, our muscles stiffen up after a little too much time sitting at a desk, and a light stretch might offer some relief. Others might feel debilitating pain on a regular basis triggered by conditions such as arthritis, lupus, and fibromyalgia.
More than 20% adults in the U.S. report suffering from chronic pain. As long as you are not further aggravating an injury, exercise can be one of the most effective ways to manage chronic pain, regardless of its cause.
If you have chronic lower back pain, specialists often recommend low impact activities such as walking, swimming, and yoga to increase strength and flexibility in the core areas and in back muscles. This can help ensure you don’t overuse certain muscles and get reinjured in the future.
If you have arthritis, a variety of exercises can also improve your quality of life. For Audrey Sawyer Mills, who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 29, working with a physical therapist to gradually increase her fitness was the first step. Fifteen year later, she regularly participates in spin classes, water aerobics and strength training, which she says have allowed her to enjoy life again, she told MedShadow.
Madeline Shonka told MedShadow that moving every day, even just a little bit, is one of the main strategies she uses to minimize the pain she experiences from lupus. On her good days, that means an intense workout. On days when she feels more pain, it can be as simple as a slow, brief walk.
Regular exercise helps Sabrina Miller manage the back pain that came along with her fibromyalgia diagnosis. Research suggests that a variety of exercises from aerobics to strength training to tai chi can help you manage fibromyalgia pain.
Many painful conditions can “flare up” with symptoms worsening for days at a time. They can also be accompanied by intense fatigue. It’s crucial to adjust your expectations and rest to avoid overexerting yourself or exacerbating symptoms.
Exercise for Diabetes and PCOS
If you have Type II diabetes, your body has lost some of its sensitivity to the hormone insulin, but regular exercise—both aerobic and strength training—can raise your insulin sensitivity and therefore reduce your symptoms. For some patients, that can even mean you’ll be able to lower your dose of medication or possibly even stop taking it altogether.
Even if you continue to require medication, exercise will lower your risk of diabetic complications such as nerve damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes that you should always monitor your blood sugar before and after exercise to make sure it’s at a safe level.
Patients with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which the ovaries produce excess androgens, are often resistant to insulin and have an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and more. Diet and exercise can help you lower your level of androgens, as well as reduce your risk of developing diabetes. In MedShadow’s Power to the Patient podcast, Denavi Patil explains how lifestyle changes help her manage PCOS without the commonly-prescribed birth control pills, which for her, caused intolerable side effects.
Exercise for Heart and Vascular Disease
It’s not news that exercise is good for the heart. Cardiovascular exercise, the aerobic kind that gets us breathing heavily, can help prevent heart attacks and strokes, and lower our blood pressure. Regular exercise strengthens our heart muscle, so it can pump blood more efficiently through our bodies, while high-intensity exercise can be beneficial, (even regular walking can help lower your blood pressure and risk of heart disease), according to a 2021 Cochrane Review of 73 studies.
Exercise for Cancer
You can lower your risk of at least eight types of cancer (if not more) with regular physical activity. The new guidelines specifically mention exercise helping to lower your risk of developing the following types of cancer: bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach and lung.
“For the past 20 years evidence has been accumulating that exercise can prevent some cancers,” says Tavel.
But even if you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer, a side effect of some treatments is heart damage. When you’re feeling up to it, exercising can help.
“One thing that has come out dozens of times across studies is the value of just regular exercise . . . You don’t have to run a marathon,” says Craig Cole, MD, a hematologist and oncologist at Michigan State University, to MedShadow. “The cumulative toxicity of a lot of these drugs is amplified by a sedentary lifestyle. When people have [cancer] therapy, they don’t feel so good. But when they do feel better, they should be up and about and walking, because that helps [improve] cardiovascular and pulmonary health and lessens neuropathy [potentially painful nerve damage] — the whole nine yards.”
Exercise for Mental Health
Exercise can help you destress, relax, and build confidence. If you have a condition like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the new guidelines suggest that aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching can help you manage your symptoms.
For those with anxiety, studies have found that both strength and aerobic exercise can help you feel more calm and in control. If you’ve been prescribed medication for your anxiety, exercise can amplify its benefits, according to one study.
In 2022, an analysis of four studies at the veteran’s administration found that exercise can help reduce several symptoms of PTSD. And it doesn’t have to be intense exercise.
Meaghan Thomas told MedShadow she “found [yoga] very calming and healing. . . I find myself doing long stretches and poses when my PTSD flares up and my body feels really tight.”
It can be challenging to exercise with depression, but if you’re able, starting a regular exercise habit can go a long way toward making you feel better and reducing your need for medication. A 2022 analysis of 15 studies found that just 1.25 hours of brisk walking per week reduced the likelihood of experiencing depression by 18%. Those who walked for 2.5 hours had 25% less chance of developing the illness.
It makes sense that getting exercise might make you sleepier, which then might help you fall and stay asleep, but that’s only the start of its impacts. Many people who have trouble sleeping struggle with anxiety or depression, both of which can be mitigated by physical activity, as discussed above. A 2019 analysis of 11 studies found that exercise reduced the time it took people to fall asleep and helped them stay asleep longer, showing benefits for those with insomnia, as well.
Exercise for IBS and Constipation/Digestive health
Regularly moving your body can help you regularly move your bowels, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Additionally, a 2022 Cochrane Review of 11 randomized trials found that exercise such as yoga or treadmill walking could help reduce some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“Exercise is a catchall for preventing and treating a range of chronic diseases and medical conditions. It is the simplest thing an individual can do to improve most aspects of their life,” says Todd Buckingham, PhD, chief exercise physiologist at Bucking Fit Life.
If you’re looking to exercise more, but don’t know where to start, check out some of these MedShadow resources:
Strength Training for Beginners
Resources for Hiking, Biking and Swimming Outdoors
Outdoor Workouts When You Don’t Feel Like Running
Podcasts and Playlists to Power Your Workout