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The “Silver Bullet” of Health
 By Dr. Don Morgan

            If a medicine existed that could prevent and treat dozens of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, would you be curious to learn more?  If this medicine was readily available and free of cost, would that increase your curiosity?  And, if I told you that this medicine needed to be taken on a daily basis to maximize health benefits, would you be willing to do so?  Tonight, I am here to tell you that such a “silver bullet of health” exists – a natural medicine that can bring daily renewal to your body and mind – it’s called daily physical activity.

man walking his dog            I’ve put together a “Top 10” list of the health benefits of regular physical activity.  Living a physically-active life can reduce mortality, improve cardiovascular health, decrease levels of obesity and excess weight, lower the risk of Type II diabetes, reduce the risk of some site-specific cancers, provide relief from arthritis, prevent osteoporosis, lower the risk of falls in the elderly, and improve mental health and quality of life. 

           Given the myriad of health benefits that come from engaging in regular physical activity, why are so many of us leading sedentary lives?  One major reason is that modern technology, by eliminating many of the physical burdens of modern living, has made it much easier to be inactive – so much so, in fact, that sedentary behavior has become the new “normal.”  In fact, the term “sedentary death syndrome” has been coined to emphasize the fact that physical inactivity contributes to an increased prevalence of many chronic diseases and premature death.  As a secondary factor, the mistaken belief that health gains can only be realized if you push yourself to maximal or near-maximal levels of exertion has probably discouraged many people from becoming more active.
           What types and how much physical activity do we need to attain good health?  Present guidelines state that health benefits can be gained from performing 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic (or oxygen-consuming) activity, which translates into 30 minutes of activity five days a week.  At first glance, adding this amount of daily physical activity to an already full schedule may not seem easy to do.  However, when you consider that there are 1440 minutes in each day, scheduling 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity on a daily basis represents only about 2% of the total day.  So, the question then becomes very simple: is it worth 2% of your time each day to secure physical and mental health blessings and decrease the risk for many adverse health conditions?  To me, this seems like an incredibly favorable cost-to-benefit ratio.  In fact, landmark studies have shown that you can markedly lower your risk of death from a variety of causes by just making small improvements in aerobic fitness.  This is a message of great hope, because while you may not be able to run a marathon or pump out 50 pushups, nearly everyone can improve their current level of physical fitness.
woman outside working in the garden            Earlier, I mentioned the need to perform moderate-intensity activities to improve aerobic fitness, which raises the question of what is meant by a “moderate” physical activity?   An easy way to know that a given activity is in the moderate-intensity range is that you can talk while you perform it.  For most people, examples of moderate activities include walking briskly, water aerobics, biking on level ground, general gardening, canoeing, playing volleyball, or a game of doubles tennis.  These activities can be performed in a single 30-minute segment each day or can be broken up into three 10-minute segments spread throughout the day, while producing the same health gains.  Performing strength-building activities such as weight training, resistance exercise, calisthenics (like pushups and situps), or heavy gardening at least twice a week can also help to develop healthy bones, joints, and muscles, all of which are necessary to perform daily living tasks like carrying groceries, going up and down stairs, and moving furniture. 

            Up to this point, I’ve highlighted the physical and health dimensions of leading an active lifestyle, but did you know that there is also a spiritual dimension to being physically active?  Consider, for instance, the natural world which surrounds us – the flowers that open and close daily, the circulating ocean currents and orbiting planets, or the gentle breeze that passes by your face on a spring day.   Or, reflect upon the unseen world that exists within our bodies – the flow of blood through our arteries and veins, the diffusion of oxygen into our cells, or the coordinated interplay of muscle proteins to create the force that pulls on our bones and propels us with each step we take.  All of these examples of nature and internal anatomy and physiology convey a fundamental principle of Christian life –that when we daily energize our bodies with physical activity, we fit perfectly into God’s creation plan for the universe – a plan in which movement and activity are the norm and not the exception!  When we are active on a regular basis, our bodies, built and designed by the Creator, respond by becoming stronger, fitter, and healthier.  Conversely, when we are sedentary for long periods of time or are active on a “hit-or-miss” basis, our bodies adapt by becoming weaker and more prone to sickness.  Whether it’s the sheer number of health blessings that come from being active, the yearning to live life with more strength and vigor, the tap on the shoulder caused by a recent health scare, or the desire to reduce stress in your life, I believe with all my heart that there is a personally meaningful reason for each of us to adopt and maintain an active lifestyle.   

             What are some practical ways to accumulate small, energy-expending doses of physical activity?  Here are just a few examples:  park your car a little farther away from the entrance to the shopping mall; walk into and out of the bank when conducting financial transactions instead of using the drive-through window; walk down the hall to visit coworkers rather than calling or emailing them, walk for a few minutes during your lunch break; or simply stand a little bit more and sit a little bit less.  Spending more time outside is another simple way of promoting physical activity -- have you noticed how much harder it is to be sedentary when you’re outside compared to being indoors?  If you’re thinking about starting a walking program, you might also consider using a pedometer to track the number of steps you take each day.  

              In closing, God has created a universe that operates on the fundamental principles of action and movement.  As our creator, He knows that our physical and spiritual health are interconnected.  God wants nothing less than for you and I to be fit and well so that we can meet and overcome the challenges of daily living, live a life full of passion and energy, and bless others with the message of good health.

Don Morgan, PhD
Exercise Physiology Professor
Middle Tennessee State University