Originally published in The Beat - Winter 2017
With 2017 just starting out, New Year’s resolutions are in full swing and people across North America are setting their sights on a year of improved health, embracing exercise and balanced diets with a renewed vigor. From signing up for a new gym membership, to restarting a running routine, many people are diving into exercise, but why? What does exercise have to offer? More than you might think.
The benefits of exercise are deep and go beyond what many might expect. While it’s well known that it makes people healthier and helps with weight loss, many people don’t truly know what effect their daily exercise routine has on their bodies.
“Introducing exercise at any point in life has the potential to reverse the aging process quite dramatically,” explained Dr. Aaron Baggish, the associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. Dr. Baggish specializes in sports cardiology and works closely with a variety of athletes.
“Introducing exercise at any point in life has the potential to reverse the aging process quite dramatically,”
One key factor to this “reverse aging” is called autophagy. The increased stress that exercise puts on the body causes cells to increase their levels of autophagy, a process that acts as a recycling system in cells. It takes the worn-out parts of the cell, which are connected to the aging process, and turns them into energy. The increased levels of autophagy from exercise seem to protect against diseases, such as cancer and neuro-degeneration. Though the process of autophagy has been explored, doctors still don’t know the full extent of the benefits it brings.
Exercise can not only reverse the aging process; it also could prolong life. Athletes who work out regularly have strong hearts and slower heartbeats. Why is a slow heart beat healthy? Because there may be a limited amount of them, according to one theory that Dr. Baggish shared. The theory states that the heart has a limited number of beats. Based on that theory, a slower heart rate could increase people’s life spans.
Not buying into the theory? Dr. Baggish explained that a lower heart rate is also metabolically more efficient, which is very beneficial for the body.
Beyond physical benefits, exercise is also great for mental health. According to Dr. Baggish, that physical activity can be a powerful anti-depressant and can help fight anxiety. Exercise can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to better sleep, increased alertness, and elevated moods.
“There’s no question that exercise is an affective cognitive stimulator,” he explained.
Not ready to become a professional athlete? That’s okay.
“You actually need relatively little amounts of exercise to get a lot of health benefits,” said Dr. Baggish. He described the recommended 150 minutes a week of heartbeat-raising exercise as a “sweet spot.” It’s the “optimum dose” of exercise that people need in order to get the most health benefits.
One of the greatest health threats today is the sedentary lifestyle that people are living.
“We need to get people who are completely inactive, to move. Our society is so geared toward promoting physical inactivity,” explained Dr. Baggish. “Everything around us allows us to be inactive if we choose to be.”
Looking forward, Dr. Baggish hopes that science can help uncover new ways to make physical activity a greater part of daily living, by finding new ways to motivate people.
One possible solution could be new wearables that are on the rise, such as Fitbits and the new Apple Watch. Numbers and metrics can be encouraging. Many people enjoy counting their steps and knowing how far they’ve walked or how many calories they’ve burned. Many have even turned it into a game, competing against friends and family by comparing their results, such as who walks the furthest in a day.
While Dr. Baggish believes that numbers and metrics can motivate certain people, he stressed the need for a continued commitment to developing accurate information. He’s personally found that devices today tend to have problems accurately measuring how many calories people have burned. This becomes an issue when people are trying to balance how many calories they take in with how many they put out.
Looking forward, he would also like to see devices that can measure oxygen consumption and sweat rates, to help athletes with their training.
Feeling inspired? Now is your time to start exercising. It’s never too late to take steps towards a healthier lifestyle. If you’re not sure where to begin, even simple walks around your neighborhood can be a good place to start. What really matters is that you’re getting your heart pumping.
Get up, get out, and move. This is a new year and it’s time for a new, healthier you.
 Autophagy in the Pathogenesis of Disease Levine, Beth et al. Cell, Volume 132, Issue 1, 27 - 42