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How physical activity influences health

The health benefits of regular exercise on the mind, body and longevity are difficult to ignore. Still, many of us, myself included, find it a challenge to meet the recommended guidelines for weekly physical activity. Seeking a little motivation to be more active, I contacted Clyde Franz Wilson, director of the Center for Nutrition at Stanford's Sports Medicine Institute, to ask about the impact physical activity has on health and to get advice on starting, or sticking to, a fitness program.

Wilson, who this summer is teaching the Stanford Continuing Studies course "Exercise Theory and Design for Health and Performance," responds to my questions below.

From boosting cognitive function to improving outcomes for prostate cancer patients to treating chronic pain, being physically active can improve overall health. How does exercise influence our health is so many different ways?

There are three main reasons that movement promotes health. Using your circulatory, respiratory, skeletal, nervous, muscular and other systems forces them to adapt to being used. In other words, using your body forces your body to stay functional and improve your ability to use your body when you need it in everyday life. The second reason is that the hormonal response to movement improves psychological health. The third is that movement raises metabolism for many hours after movement occurs and, as a result, reduces the risk of almost every main disease we suffer from. In the end, movement increases quality of life every day because of improved physical and mental functionality and because it increases the number of days we can potentially live.

What is exercise design? What are the essential elements of exercise design that will be covered in the course?

Exercise design is a systematic way of thinking about movement to optimize health. The essential elements are to think about are how often to exercise and how much volume and intensity to exercise when you do exercise. How often you should exercise is based on how long it takes to recover from exercise but also how long it takes to love your benefits. Volume and intensity is based on how much movement affects the circulatory, respiratory, skeletal, nervous, muscular and other systems in the body. Movements that use as many different muscles in the body at once provide the most efficient exercises to get the greatest positive effect for every minute that you exercise.

A portion of your research has involved myosin, the motor protein that facilitates muscle contraction and therefore human movement. How do the cellular aspects of performance and fatigue, from the perspective of muscle fibers, contribute to exercise design for health and performance?

The healthiest societies in the world don't exercise; they just have active lives. However, for those who are not active enough to optimize their health because they sit a lot, do not eat as healthily as they should, or both, the question becomes how can you optimize movement in a short period of time to counter the negative effects of the rest of our day? Optimizing movement requires thinking about the movement process, which is fundamentally based on the molecules that drive movement.

Weight loss is a common, if not the most common, goal of many exercise programs. But a growing amount of scientific evidence is showing the equation is more complex than total calorie consumed daily - calories burned = weight loss or gain. What insights can you offer about what scientific literature says about human movement and a specific goal such as weight loss?

Body fat levels are determined by metabolism, which is determined by how the body regulates calories. The body regulates calories hormonally, which is only partly dependent on how many calories you eat versus expend when you move throughout the day. It is even more dependent on the type of foods you eat and how intensely you move throughout the day for example slow versus brisk walking. This concept will take up much of the course since body fat reduction has such a large and profound effect on increasing quality of life by improving body function and increasing longevity.

In your course, you assist students in developing personalized exercise programs that promote healthy lifestyle changes. What's your approach, and how does it address psychological barriers to improving one’s health?

This is another major portion of the course - how the brain makes decisions. The psychological research has much to offer us in terms of understanding the reward process in the brain that drives our instincts in contrast to what we know is good for us. For example, we know that sugar and sitting on a couch are not as healthy for us as broccoli and hiking. Yet, we gravitate to the sugar and couch and often at the same time.  Understanding the mental processes that underlie this natural gravitation enables us to establish triggers for healthier habits in our environment. The best way to establish long-term change is to manage your instinctual responses the same way you would a young child: surround them (yourself) with both healthy stimuli and rewards. Allowing for both the healthy targets that your pre-frontal cortex is after (your conscious thoughts on wanting to be healthier) and sitting on the couch with sugar that your basal ganglia is after (instinctual drives we are born with) allows for long-term success.

Previously: Study shows how physical activity benefits seniors’ hearts, Stanford cardiologist discusses the importance of exercise and nutrition for heart health, Study shows frequent breaks from sitting may improve heart health, weight loss and Do muscles retain memory of their former fitness?
Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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