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Exercise may be the best medicine

Published May 26. 2012 09:02AM

After years of researching the subject, Lee Jones, a scientist at Duke University, believes he knows how those who would rather not exercise can avoiding doing so yet still receive the same health benefits. If you have aversion to exercise, all you need to do is take 200 different drugs.

In fact, Jones calculates that 200 drugs is the minimum you would need to aid every different bodily system or function that exercise enhances. Maybe that's why Jones, who exercises twice every day, says in a McClatchy-Tribune article, "I wouldn't go a day without eating or sleeping, and I wouldn't go a day without exercise."

While the health benefits of exercise have been a recurring theme of this column since its inception and countless experts have been quoted to establish that fact, I see Jones's quotation along with his twice-daily exercise routine that has allowed him to complete the New York Marathon twice as a significant progression.

Jones is not some trainer to the stars shilling an exercise video to make a quick buck. He's a disciple of science who has been swayed by his research.

And his studies along with dozens of others show that exercise is more than a way to maintain a healthy weight, improve your mood, and retard the rate at which you age. It's also an extremely safe and effective medicine that Jones and legions of others just as lucky find wholesomely habit forming.

Before Jones' research, for instance, many doctors advised cancer patients not to exercise so as not to weaken a body already weakened by the disease and its treatment. Unfortunately, cancer therapies like chemotherapy compromise the cardiovascular system, so the curing of cancer, ironically, increases the odds of developing cardiovascular disease.

But in a study first presented at the American Institute for Cancer Research 2011 Research Conference on Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Cancer, Jones showed that patients with significant breast cancer tumors could undergo chemotherapy, exercise at the same time, and improve cardiovascular fitness by about 12 percent.

Moreover, other research by Jones has shown that exercise inhibits the growth of many types of tumors. In specific studies done with laboratory mice, the rate slows between 30 and 50 percent.

While Jones may be the most ardent advocate of exercising while battling cancer, he is far from the only one researching the concept of exercise as a surrogate drug.

Just last month, for example, researchers from Rush University Medical Center published research in the journal Neurology that showed even those 80 years of age and older can lower their chance of developing Alzheimer's disease with a daily dose of exercise, even when the exercise is nothing more than typical physical activity, such as gardening, cleaning, and even cooking.

Led by Dr. Aron Buchman, the Rush researchers measured total daily physical activity of 716 subjects with an average age of 82 none of whom had any signs of dementia for 10 days. The subjects were also given tests to measure thinking ability and memory.

About three and a half years later, nearly 10 percent of the subjects had developed Alzheimer's disease. But when the 10 percent who were least active during the 10 days of testing were compared to 10 percent who were most active, researchers discovered that the least active subjects were 280 percent more likely to have been afflicted.

As a result of this study, Dr. Buchman believes that you can definitely reduce your risk cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease through exercise. So in the same way that you could take a pill or powder, you could be "taking" a daily dose of exercise to improve your odds of retaining your brain as you age.

In a September 2011 Mayo Clinic Proceedings article, a review of 1,600 studies, 130 of which dealt specifically with exercise and the aging of the brain found enough evidence to hypothesize that aerobic exercise thwarts dementia. This belief was buoyed by finding that many of the reviewed studies showed exercise in midlife reduced the risk of any dementia later, that healthy adults found to be aerobic exercisers had better cognitive test scores, and that patients who did have some form of dementia and then exercised had better scores six to 12 months later than those with dementia who remained sedentary.

Now consider the stream of studies that have progressive resistance training such as weightlifting can build muscle strength at any age, and you have another important example of how exercise successfully battles diseases before, during, and after they occur.

That's because an increase in muscle mass at any time aids in maintaining a healthy body weight, and maintaining a healthy body weight not only decreases your likelihood of developing many cancers and all types of heart disease, but also our newest major medical malady, diabetes.

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