Exercise and Health

Updated: Jul 24

Oftentimes when you go to the doctor’s office, you hear the familiar question:

“How many minutes per day do you exercise?”

If you’re someone that enjoys the comfort of your couch, chances are you’re not alone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — based on a National Health Interview Survey from 2018— found that within the United States, 53.3% of adults met the aerobic activity guidelines whereas 23.2% of adults met the guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

The physical benefits of exercise are well-known. Aside from maintaining physical fitness, the CDC suggests that getting regular amounts of exercise can help prevent the onset of chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. More reflective of the current COVID-19 situation, the CDC has a list of some exercises one can try while social distancing.

Yet, there are tangible barriers to exercise. Some barriers reported by the CDC include a lack of time, social support, energy, motivation, injury, skill, weather conditions, high costs, along with a lack of adequate facilities.

One program established by the CDC to tackle these barriers amongst racial and ethnic minorities is the REACH, (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health), program. The program—with an emphasis on tackling healthcare disparities—highlights the prevalence of certain chronic conditions, (such as increased rates of obesity), that are particularly common in certain racial and ethnic groups. Within the area of “active living”, it was found that many communities of color lack access to public exercise facilities. Many of these barriers can be found further in depth within this source. One of the key takeaways is that to address this healthcare gap, an emphasis has been placed on promoting physical activity within these communities to help combat higher rates of chronic illness; ultimately to aid in fostering equity within these communities.

While exercise can be important for physical health, some studies suggest that exercise can influence mental and emotional health. In regard to emotional health, Mayo Clinic highlights how exercise can help one in gaining “confidence…[and] cope in a healthier way”. It is also believed that exercise can help reduce one’s risk of developing depression and anxiety along with disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On a similar note, research has investigated the use of exercise in disease management amongst those with mental disorders. For instance, one study highlights how aerobic exercise may be used in disease management of individuals with PTSD.

To get to the point, a meta-analysis, (or a study that comes to a conclusion about a specific topic by investigating the findings from a large pool of related studies), found that physical activity “plays a role in the promotion of mental well-being and prevention of mental ill-being”. (Teychenne et al, 2020, p.3-4)

As with all nice things, moderation is key. This study highlights the opposite end of the spectra; exercise addiction is a real phenomena. Although we may typically associate addiction with chemical substances, behavioral addictions, (e.g., gambling), are a form of addiction. One study highlights some key characteristics that may suggest that someone’s attachment to exercise may be a bit more than a simple hobby. (According to the aforementioned source, an extremely simplistic definition for "addiction" would be to describe it as when an individual centers their life around the behavior and experiences withdrawal --unpleasant symptoms-- in the absence of said behavior.)

This is not by any means to suggest that someone who enjoys exercise is suddenly deemed an “addict.” However, it’s interesting in that it challenges common heuristics; we typically associate exercise with well-being and addiction with substances.

While exercise may not be a panacea, studies have shown that exercise can have both physical and mental benefits. It might seem annoying to go outside and start exercising, (especially when it means having to temporarily give up worldly comforts such as your cozy chair), but studies suggest that it may not be a bad idea.

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