Let's look first at the conventional view of the benefits of exercise. There is a large and increasing amount of evidence which clearly tells us that exercise prevents today's number 1 killer: cardiovascular disease. That is, heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. Mind you, what is common knowledge today emerged only some 50 years ago when Morris and colleagues discovered that UK bus conductors, the guys climbing up and down the double-decker London buses, had better fitness and fewer heart attacks than their all-day-seated driver colleagues .
In the years since then our knowledge about the effects of physical activity on cardiovascular, metabolic and mental health has virtually exploded. From this evidence the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) concluded in 2008 that the most active people of the population have a 35% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to the least active people . The WHO lists insufficient physical activity (PA) as the 4th leading cause of death world wide after high blood pressure, tobacco use and high blood glucose. What's wrong with this picture? High blood pressure and high blood glucose are known consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. So is obesity, which ranks 5th place on the WHO killer list. Which is why physical inactivity deserves top spot on that list.
What most people don't know is the way lack of physical activity causes all those diseases, from insulin resistance and diabetes to arterial dysfunction and atherosclerosis, and from there to heart attack, stroke, kidney failure. The mechanisms are extremely complex, and, while we have untangled quite some of them, there are probably a lot more to discover. I'll try to make this the subject of one of the next blog posts.
Now you are probably asking yourself, how the hell, with all this evidence, will I ever be able to make my point that physical activity is not a medicine. Ok, here it comes: it's a matter of viewpoint. The one I'm taking is the one of evolutionary biology. Let me play its advocate and present as evidence a couple of insights.
First, our human ancestors, who had roamed this Earth as hunter/gatherers for the most part of human existence, had, by necessity, a much more physically active lifestyle. A lifestyle which required at least 1.7 to 2 times the normal resting energy expenditure . [To get an idea about resting energy expenditure and physical activity levels and how they are calculated, simply follow the links to the videos.] Those ancestors' genes are what we have inherited. And these genes are exposed to a lifestyle which is vastly different from the ones under which these genes evolved. Specifically with a view to physical activity, which brings me to evidence no 2:
What we typically observe today are physical activity levels with factors of somewhere between 1.2 and 1.4 of our resting energy expenditure. That's true for most people.
Even if you were to follow the ACSM's recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise on at least 5 days per week, would you NOT reach the level of 1.7 if you are working in a typical office job or doing house work. Which means, the physical activity levels which we recommend today, do not add a behavioral type of medicine into our lives, they merely reduce the extent of a "poisonous" behavior called sedentism. It's like cutting down from 2 packs of cigarettes per day to 1 pack. Would you call this a "medicine"? Would the ACSM call that a medicine? With respect to exercise they do.
So, OK, if you had been attracted to this post in the hope of finding some excuse for not doing exercise, or some argument to get those exercise evangelists, like myself, off your back, I'm sorry to have disappointed you. No, actually, I'm not sorry. And neither will you be, if you get your physical activity level above those 1.7. Then you may just start calling exercise a medicine. Until then, chances are you will still go to hell with exercise, because you get too little of it. Certainly too little to stay out of that hell of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many cancers.
1. Morris, J.N. and P.A. Raffle, Coronary heart disease in transport workers; a progress report. Br J Ind Med, 1954. 11(4): p. 260-4.
2. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, 2008, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Washington, D.C.
3. Eaton, S.B. and S.B. Eaton, An evolutionary perspective on human physical activity: implications for health. Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol, 2003. 136(1): p. 153-9.
MORRIS JN, & RAFFLE PA (1954). Coronary heart disease in transport workers; a progress report. British journal of industrial medicine, 11 (4), 260-4 PMID: 13208943
Eaton, S., & Eaton, S. (2003). An evolutionary perspective on human physical activity: implications for health Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology - Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 136 (1), 153-159 DOI: 10.1016/S1095-6433(03)00208-3