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Fitness is a State of Health 

Sitting for long periods is a problem

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It’s often misunderstood, generalized, cliched and intimidating, and sometimes coming off as preachy, but it is documented and undisputable! Fitness, at least regular physical activity (PA) impacts physical and mental health.

With the hectic pace and pressures of everyday life as well as the routines and expectations of the workplace, fitness and health are a more important priority than ever.

Of course the details and stats can get complex, technical and sometimes baffling, but the jury is definitely in and unanimous. The connection is undisputable. Physical activity, exercise and fitness is a vital factor for achieving and maintaining physical and mental health.

Researchers emphasize that PA and fitness does not have to be grunting workouts with bench presses, deadlifts, squats, shoulder presses and a half-hour at top speed on a treadmill.

PA includes any form of movement that engages muscles and burns calories. Structured routines are unstructured and regular activities like jogging, brisk walking, pilates, cycling, swimming, yoga and even taking the stairs, gardening, doing household chores.

Health experts point out that PA is particularly relevant for people who spend a lot of their daily time in static, usually sedentary functions in the workplace. Studies consistently show that  adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity definitely gain positive health benefits.

Muscle-strengthening activities like lifting weights can help increase or maintain muscle mass and strength. This is important for older adults who experience reduced muscle mass and muscle strength with aging. Slowly increasing the amount of weight and number of the repetitions of muscle strengthening activities provide even more benefits, regardless of age.

“Everything could be said to be important to live a healthy life,” admits the focused and personable Dr. Patricia Doyle-Baker, associate dean graduate, University of Calgary, Faculty of Kinesiology. “What really matters are the factors we can control and the behaviours we choose to engage in. And physical activity is important. It is a behaviour that is relatively easy to control.

“The choices are many for an able body person. The benefits or the outcomes are far reaching because consistent PA behaviour has an impact on most physiological processes, and this subsequently also spills over into mental health.

Physically activity significantly impacts many common diseases, from heart disease and cancer to infectious diseases, Type 2 diabetes, bone and muscle strength and weight management. It also improves brain health, with documented psychological effects boosting self-esteem, cognitive function, mood, stress, anxiety, depression and quality of life.

When it comes to life’s most prominent and worrisome risk factors – cancer and heart disease – the role of physical activity can be significant.

Although heart disease and stroke are two leading causes of death, health experts unequivocally suggest that as little as 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week can lower cardiovascular risks like blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Physical activity routines are also documented as reducing the risks for developing bladder, breast, colon, kidney and lung cancers.

Regular PA can also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is some combination of too much fat around the waist, high blood pressure, low high-density lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol, high triglycerides or high blood sugar.

Physical activity may help reduce the risk of serious outcomes from infectious diseases, including COVID-19, the flu and pneumonia. According to recent research, people who do little or no physical activity are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19 than those who are physically active. A systematic health review found that physical activity is associated with a decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, while inactivity increases that risk.

Overall or specific, research tracks that people start to see benefits at most levels from physical activity, even without meeting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. Additional amounts of physical activity seem to lower risks even more.

Mind-body approaches have been the subject of a lot of studies, and some of the findings suggest they may aid with mental health issues.

Calgary’s Dr. Doyle-Baker contrasts the health value of PA with medical evidence with the negative impact of no physical activity. “There are many indicators that poor quality of life is a consequence of a lack of PA, often leading to early onset of chronic inflammatory diseases and noncommunicable diseases such as some cancers, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and dementia.

“Food choices can increase the inflammatory response such as an abundance of red meat, processed meats, commercial baked goods, empty-calorie snacks,” she adds, “and sitting for long periods of time are extremely important to avoid.”

Various recent surveys emphasize the positive impact of physical activity on various aspects of mental health.

Avoiding overly clinical details, Dr. Doyle-Baker explains that, “While exercise boosts physical factors, like increasing the abilities of the arteries to vasodilate and the production of nitric oxide for heart health, physical activity is vital for the many ways it benefits mental health.

“PA improves the functioning of the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis, one of the many ‘control centres’ in the body that helps keep our stress in balance by lowering cortisol, sometimes called the stress hormone. Individuals who exercise produce more neurochemicals that are linked to pleasure, reduced pain sensitivity and sleepiness and other aspects of brain health.”

A far too common contemporary mental health issue is sleep deprivation. It negatively impacts the body’s immune system, glucose metabolism but also moods, anxiety and cognitive ability. Findings show that consistent physical activity may significantly improve sleep habits and sleep quality.

One study indicated that, after 12 weeks of fitness training, both the quantity and quality of sleep in adolescents improved.

Other effects of PA on mental health have been shown to be beneficial. Exercise in general is associated with a better mood and improved quality of life.

Part of the new focus and balance between physical and mental health suggests that yoga is a potent physical activity for symptoms of anxiety and depression. The experts agree that yoga is a generally safe PA for most people and seldom causes unintended negative consequences. Adding yoga to traditional treatments for mental health is proving popular. Many studies about yoga include meditation as an integral part of the effective methodology, and meditation and other forms of focused mental practice may actually trigger a physiological reaction known as the relaxation response.

For example, among people with schizophrenia, yoga was shown to have more positive effects with exercise when compared with no intervention. And findings also show that consistent physical activity may significantly improve sleep habits and sleep quality.

Patients with alcohol dependence syndrome benefit from a combination of medical therapy together with regular PA, since it motivates them to combat addiction by decreasing cravings.

Research continues to explain an undeniable link between PA and other psychological effects, such as self-esteem, cognitive function, mood, depression and quality of life. Physical activity and exercise can also improve attention, focus, memory, language fluency and decision-making for up to two hours after the PA. Yoga, a popular activity routine, has been shown to enhance mood and self-esteem while decreasing stress tendencies.

The all-important bottom line, according to Calgary kinesiologist Dr. Doyle-Baker, is that  “Physical fitness is a state of health and well-being. And more specifically, the ability to perform aspects occupations, sports and daily activities.”

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