Exercise is bad for you? Really?

Really?

Last week a study was published that said that exercise is bad for some people. Blasphemy, pure blasphemy. But yes, you read that correctly. The study reported that exercise is bad for some people.  More specifically, the researchers basically showed that about 10% of people studied had slightly worse levels of certain risk factors that can increase the risk of heart disease. These included higher blood pressure, higher insulin levels, and higher triglycerides, and lower good cholesterol (HDL). (For interested readers, the details of the study can be found here with comments on the New York Times Well blog here).

Exercise couldn’t really be dangerous for you, could it? Sure, those of you who didn’t go to the gym last week or skipped your morning run today are thinking, ‘See, I knew there was a good reason I didn’t exercise!’

As many of you know, I am a huge proponent of exercise and a strong believer that exercise is good for so many things health-related and beyond.  There is good evidence that exercise really is beneficial in so many ways. Here’s a sampling of the wide benefits of exercise:

  • Better blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Lower blood sugar
  • Lower stress
  • Less depression
  • Better self-image
  • Improved arthritis symptoms
  • Lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease

In fact, in my research, I study the mechanisms for the beneficial effects of exercise in patients with a Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). Patients with PAD develop blockages in the blood vessels to the legs mainly caused by plaque build-up (‘atherosclerosis’) in the blood vessel wall. When these patients walk, they are unable to supply their leg muscles with enough oxygen and nutrients, and so their legs hurt. And it turns out that exercise is one of the best treatments for PAD too.

So what does all this mean for you? 

Yes, I agree, we don’t want patients to develop higher blood pressure or worse cholesterol. But what wasn’t made clear in the study was if these same patients also might have had beneficial changes in other factors that weren’t mentioned, such as bad cholesterol (LDL), measures of good and bad fat, glucose levels, weight, and overall fitness levels. So that despite some markers heading in the wrong direction, the overall effects might still be positive.

In my mind, the overwhelming evidence still points to a beneficial effect (90% of patients in the study did improve after all…). So, I’m sorry, yes, you should still exercise. But as with everything, as this study makes clear, there are risks and benefits. And not all interventions (be it a pill, a procedure, or even exercise) are right for all people. Clearly we need more information about the benefits (and potential risks…) of exercise. But one thing is clear. You will never go wrong by having a frank discussion with your doctor, and by closely monitoring your blood pressure, your cholesterol, your weight, and most importantly how you feel.

One last point… How much exercise is enough?

Well, here’s the official party line:

  • 75 minutes/week of vigorous exercise (such as running, playing sports, swimming, etc.)

OR

  • 150 minutes/week of moderate exercise (walking, casual biking, ballroom dancing, pushing a lawnmower)

This is the equivalent of three 30-minute bouts of more vigorous exercise or five 30-minute spurts of more moderate activity weekly. But remember, some activity is better than no activity. My message is always to do the activity that you enjoy best.

So, get up and go. And let’s get you healthy!

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