Food & Fitness After 50: Physical Activity is a Polypill – Say What?

Poly means many and polypharmacy refers to taking many drugs, prescription as well as over the counter, that can bring unwanted problems for older adults. Some people have shoe boxes full of prescription medicines, vitamin supplements, pain relievers, and other dietary supplements claiming to cure all ills. But, what if there was a polypill; one pill that could help us all improve our healthspan? In today’s post, Dr. Bob Murray, co-author of Food & Fitness After 50, lets us in on the secret of a polypill.

This post was written by Dr. Bob Murray

There is little doubt that regular physical activity lengthens our healthspan—the number of years when we are in good health.  Lots of research has made it clear that no medication is more effective than physical activity in helping us stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.  For that reason, exercise has been referred to as a pollypill —a medication with multiple benefits.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that all the physical activity we encounter during the course of a normal day has a role in preventing heart disease.  The researchers looked at the daily physical activity habits of 5,861 older women (average age was 78) over a 5-year period and found that even light activity reduced the chances of death from heart disease.

Only about 25% of adults in the U.S. achieve the current recommendations for physical activity of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity) each week.  For anyone who is intimidated by the prospect of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, the notion that all movement counts may well promote more light physical activity during the day.  Let’s hope that’s the case.

Walking, dusting, vacuuming, climbing stairs at home, gardening and lawn work, playing with children and pets, and similar low-intensity activities are part of everyday life for most Americans.  In the JAMA study, the older women engaged in a total of 3 to over 6 hours of light physical activity each day.  Not surprisingly, more physical activity was associated with lower risk of heart disease, a finding that is likely also true for older men, although that likelihood awaits confirmation.

exerciseAny time we get our heart, lungs, and muscles out of their comfort zones—even for a little bit—our bodies benefit.  A quick look at the list of health benefits of physical activity should be enough to convince even the most sedentary person to move more.

  • Lower deaths from all causes
  • Lower risk of heart disease
  • Lower risk of hypertension
  • Lower risk of stroke
  • Lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes
  • Lower risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancers
  • Lower risk of serious falls
  • Lower risk of complications after surgery
  • Lower risk of metabolic syndrome (includes obesity)
  • Lower risk of depression (and reduces the severity of depression)
  • Better memory and cognitive function
  • Better bone health
  • Improved quality of life
  • Greater life expectancy

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if even light physical activity conferred all those same benefits, even if to a lesser extent than more vigorous physical activity?  There is a strong possibility that is the case, although much more research is needed to confirm that educated guess.  What is known is that moving more during the day is a goal we all should embrace.

In general, Americans sit too often for too long.  Research has shown that prolonged sitting increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 Diabetes, and cancer.  Even if we exercise during the day, sitting for hours on end increases our risk of those disorders.  Happily, interrupting prolonged sitting with periodic 5-minute physical activity “snacks” counters the negative aspects of sitting.  Climbing a few flights of stairs, taking a brisk walk, or doing simple calisthenics can be easily accomplished during a 5-minute break.

Physical activity is indeed a polypill that can help us lead longer, happier, healthier lives and the fact that all movement counts helps make it easier for all of us to keep moving toward a longer healthspan.

Dr. Bob Murray is an exercise physiologist and managing principal of a sports science consulting company. His passion for exercise and health began as a physical education teacher and coach, and continues today in his late 60s as an avid swimmer, cyclist, and fitness fan.

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