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Getting fitter: what’s in it for you?

August 7, 2012

By Patricia Nicholson

If watching the world’s best athletes compete in London has inspired you to get fitter, you should know about some of the benefits of fitness. Most people know that improving their fitness level is good for them, but some of the reasons might surprise them.

To find out about the beneficial effects of getting fitter, Women’s Health Matters spoke to Dr. Julia Alleyne, medical director of Sport CARE at Women’s College Hospital, and chief medical officer for the Canadian Olympic team. Dr. Alleyne also served the Canadian Olympic teams in Salt Lake City, Torino, Beijing and Vancouver. Before she left for London, we spoke to her about how exercise benefits the heart, body and mind.

Heart

The biggest benefit you’ll get from physical activity is to your cardiovascular system. Sometimes people forget the importance of cardiovascular health because when they think of fitness, they think of body image. Cardiovascular fitness can have a profound influence on quality of life.

“The biggest muscle in your body that’s going to give you the biggest bang for your buck is your heart muscle,” Dr. Alleyne says. “Exercise is going to improve cardiovascular fitness, and it’s cardiovascular fitness that allows us to continue to walk, to live independently, to do stairs.”

Metabolism

Getting fitter also affects metabolism, including everything from weight management to blood sugar control to body composition (the percentage of fat versus the percentage of muscle).

“The metabolic changes are also a great benefit when someone is an exerciser,” Dr. Alleyne says. “And those metabolic changes affect our sleep patterns, and affect our hunger patterns and affect our moods.”

Bones

Exercise is crucial for bone density. It can help prevent or slow the progression of osteoporosis, but it has to be a specific type of exercise: weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, aerobics, jogging, racquet sports and weight lifting.

Dr. Alleyne notes that exercise isn’t just about fracture prevention, but also fall prevention.

“We have a higher rate of women falling and breaking hips – that’s the scenario we want to avoid,” she says. “Exercise helps with balance, it helps with joint position, it helps with prevention of slips and falls.”

Brain

We know that exercise is beneficial to mental health, and specifically to decreasing anxieties and depression symptoms.

“It is not just cardiovascular exercise that helps,” Dr. Alleyne says.  “We know that weight training, circuit training, mind/body exercise like yoga or tai chi all have significant benefit in helping our brains have less anxiety symptoms and less depression symptoms.”

Health conditions

In addition to generalized benefits like cardiovascular and metabolic improvements, exercise can also have targeted benefits for specific organs, and can help improve some existing health conditions. For example, for people with arthritis, exercise will help with mobility of joints and stability of muscle. For people with asthma, exercise will increase the lungs’ capacity versus decrease it.

Immune system

Some of the most surprising fitness benefits are its effects on the immune system and cancer prevention.

“We also have significant evidence that exercise can reduce incidence of cancer,” Dr. Alleyne explains. “Exercise affects your immune system’s ability to fight infection. We don’t actually know how all of that works, but we know from studies that those who exercise have better health in terms of immune system and prevention of cancer.”

Cognitive function

Another surprising benefit is the effect of physical fitness on cognitive fitness. There is a growing body of evidence linking exercise to decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and linking greater cognitive function as we age – things like memory, focus, logic and attention – to increased levels of exercise.

Coping skills

The accumulated benefits of exercise – including things like sleeping better and having fewer anxiety symptoms – can improve overall coping skills and quality of life. However, to reap all of its benefits, exercise must be a lifestyle change.

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital