The Why Files The Why Files -- whyfiles.org

Exercise: Key to a long life, healthy life?
POSTED 14 AUGUST 2008
Blond man runs in lightweight running gear around a clay red track with a look of fierce determination on his face
Olympic runner Matt Tegenkamp is currently competing in Beijing.
Photo of Tegenkamp: © Eric Tadsen, Tadsen Photography

As the Olympics grind on

Those of us who did not qualify for the five-ring circus have to wonder, why bother exercising? It takes time and energy to play three sets of tennis, run five miles, or bike 25. You need clothes, equipment, and motivation … and you come back a sweaty mess.

The answer, if you've been reading the news, is that exercise may be the best single prescription for health. It turns out that the body likes to be used. And using the body benefits the body -- and the mind.

In the 1960s, amid a rising rate of heart attacks, exercise meant gym classes dominated by boring jumping jacks and maybe a breathless run, but the national waistline continued to expand, and diabetes grew into an epidemic. A growing band of scientists began exploring the benefits of exercise, and what they found went far beyond the heart, lungs and blood vessels.

Exercise, for example, made people feel better. That concept, heretical during an era that still regarded "body" and "mind" as distinct, was transformed to conventional wisdom after medical researchers discovered endorphins -- natural pain-killers closely akin to opiates that the body makes during exertion.

Since then, we've heard that exercise can reduce certain types of cancer, prevent disabilities, ease depression, control weight, boost the immune system, fight osteoporosis, even help with multiple sclerosis. And yes, it also prevents heart attacks and can extend the lifespan.

Iron women: Kathie and Lisa grit it out toward the end of a Wisconsin Ironman. You can't tell from their faces, but exercise is good for the mind and the body.
wo average shaped women run by a cheering crowd as they compete in a triathlon.
Photo: © David Tenenbaum

The diabetes workout

In the midst of an epidemic of type 2 diabetes, exercise is recognized as critical to slowing or reversing a disease that now afflicts even children. According to theCenters for Disease Control, "Physical activity can help you control your blood glucose, weight, and blood pressure … . It can also help prevent heart and blood flow problems, reducing your risk of heart disease and nerve damage, which are often problems for people with diabetes."

Skyscrapers loom in the distance as two bikers race down a city paved path
© David Tenenbaum
Physical activity can help you control your blood glucose, weight, and blood pressure, but these bikers, along the West Side of Manhattan, are probably more interested in having a good time. Fortunately, their metabolism won't hold that against them!

Although the evidence is less absolute for some other benefits of exercise, getting sweaty will never be the same.

In honor of the Olympics, let's take a Why-Files jog through new evidence on the health benefits of exercise.

Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2017, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.