When you think of preventive health, you may think of smoking cessation, screening tests and annual physicals. But one of the most important preventive health practices available involves nothing more than lacing up your sneakers and getting active.

Scientific evidence supports the notion that regular exercise is important to fending off cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia and depression. “And exercise not only prevents chronic conditions, it helps build your immune system to fight off simple infections like the common cold or sore throat,” says Dr. Clarissa Allen, a family physician on staff at St. Luke’s Hospital. It also improves balance and coordination, and can help maintain bone mass through weight-bearing exercise, she adds.

“The human body is amazing—if you train it to be an efficient couch potato, it will slow everything down and adjust to that lifestyle,” says Dale Huff, co-owner of NutriFormance Fitness, Therapy and Performance Facilities. “If one challenges their fitness with interval training and strength and conditioning, then the body will improve in all sorts of parameters.”

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise five times per week.

Allen suggests using the FIT principle, which considers frequency, intensity and time. “If you can carry on a conversation with breathing about every eight to 10 words, your intensity is appropriate,” she says. “And most research shows that getting 30 minutes a day of exercise is helpful in maintaining or improving health. That can be two 15-minute sessions or three 10-minute sessions. But any time spent exercising is better than not exercising.”

Just how does exercise benefit the body? Allen explains that the physiological benefits include such things as improved muscular function and oxygen usage. “As a person’s ability to transport and use oxygen improves, regular daily activities can be performed with less fatigue. This is particularly important for patients with cardiovascular disease, whose exercise capacity is typically less than that of healthy individuals,” she notes.

“Evidence supports that exercise-training improves the capacity of the blood vessels to dilate in response to exercise or hormones, consistent with better vascular wall function and an improved ability to provide oxygen to the muscles during exercise,” Allen continues. “Studies measuring muscular strength and flexibility before and after exercise programs suggest that there are improvements in bone health and ability to perform daily activities, as well as a lower likelihood of developing back pain and of disability, particularly in older age groups.” Huff adds that exercise also helps stabilize blood sugar levels and increases HDL cholesterol (‘good cholesterol’) in the bloodstream.

To maintain a successful exercise program, Huff stresses finding an activity you enjoy and creating a consistent exercise schedule. “Sporadic exercisers aren’t going to see the same benefits that consistent exercises will see,” he says. “Even though afterward you may experience a mood enhancement and satisfied feeling with your effort, the cardiovascular and strength benefits will not be the same. In a sense, you’ll be spinning your wheels to make gains, but this is still better than never exercising.”

While you should talk to your doctor about starting an exercise routine if you’ve been sedentary, Allen notes that there almost is always some form of safe exercise for anyone. Even if you start slowly, remember that “any amount of physical activity is beneficial.”

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