by Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
Saving money for emergencies is a wise habit and can be crucial to being prepared in case of a change in your financial situation due to a lost job or unexpected expense. While putting savings aside for a rainy day may seem like common sense, all too often people are caught without enough to tide them over if or when the unthinkable happens.
The principle of saving for a rainy day can also be applied to exercise and fitness. Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Among the benefits in the long list of positive health effects of exercise are a lower risk of weight gain, diabetes and heart disease. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing. Exercise also is essential for healthy childhood development, maintaining wellness in adults, and even reversing some of the effects of aging.
When you are healthy, you can exercise to maintain a high level of fitness. This makes your day-to-day activities easier and serves as a reserve or “bank” to draw on when the need arises. Maintaining good fitness can help get you through a health crisis the same way saving money helps get you through a financial crisis. You never know when an injury or illness might strike that could limit your activity for days or result in a hospitalization that could keep you in bed for a week, a month, or longer.
The problem with periods of inactivity, like bed rest or hospitalization, is that severe physiological effects can occur within days and will only get worse over time. You may have noticed weakness and fatigue after spending a few days in bed with a cold or flu. Muscle strength declines with each day of bed rest, and can decrease by 50% after as little as three weeks of inactivity. A person who is fit and strong when they enter the hospital is likely to be better off when released than one who is less active before their illness or injury. And, older adults tend to fare worse than younger individuals. According to one study, the decline in strength seen in older men after just 10 days of bed rest was equivalent to the change in men 30 years younger after 28 days of inactivity. This loss in strength can result in a person having difficulty completing the most basic activities of daily living.
It’s not just the muscles that are affected, either. The bones can also become weaker during periods of inactivity. In fact, even a few weeks of bed rest can reduce bone density enough to expose patients to a greater risk of fracture. A well-rounded fitness routine can build bone density by putting stress on bones through weight-bearing exercise and strengthen muscles through the action of pulling on the bones during resistance training. When bed rest eliminates these stresses, bone density and muscle strength decline rapidly.
The good news is that most hospital patients are encouraged to get up and move around as much as possible. They may be prescribed inpatient physical therapy or rehabilitation after major surgery to help lessen the effects of prolonged bed rest. This post operative activity is important to their ability to bounce back and regain strength they will need to function after they return home.
We know that regular exercise can help lower the risk of heart attack and improve survival rates among heart attack victims. While immediate treatment of a heart attack using medications and surgery is critical, a patient’s positive outcome is also dependent on what happens next. In the not so distant past, heart patients were told to go home and rest and not stress their hearts. Today, there is strong evidence that exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation programs are key to improving long-term heart health and preventing future complications.
Comprehensive cardiac rehabilitation programs include monitored exercise, education about nutrition, weight control, stress management, proper medication use, and psychosocial support. Although the benefits of cardiac rehabilitation are well established through research and practice, unfortunately less than a third of heart patients who are eligible for cardiac rehabilitation actually take advantage of such a program.
Exercise is also known to reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including breast, colon, bladder, lung, kidney, and endometrial cancers. This is because exercise causes changes at the cellular and hormonal level that result in reduced inflammation and improved immune system function. Regular physical activity can improve a cancer patient’s chance of survival and reduce the risk of recurrence of cancer.
Regular exercise also can help a person better handle cancer treatment. To be sure, cancer treatment can result in extreme physical effects including the loss of weight, muscle mass, strength, and endurance. The fitter you are when you begin treatment, the fitter you will be afterward thanks to the “reserve” you have in your fitness bank. You simply have more strength and endurance to draw on before you reach a point where you have difficulty tackling your normal activities. After cancer treatment, exercise programs can be crucial to helping you rebuild strength, endurance, and feelings of wellbeing.
Another benefit of cardiac rehabilitation and post cancer exercise programs is the encouragement of other survivors. Combined with support from medical professionals, family, and friends, these groups become an essential resource for information, comfort, and encouragement.
There are many immediate reasons to exercise and get fit, but when you make regular exercise a part of your life you are inadvertently putting away something for a rainy day. The investments you make in your fitness bank today – are investments you can count on if you are sick or injured in the future.
Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.