“Does Exercise Really Keep Us Healthy?”

Runner (by StarbuckGuy)

I regularly scan the science, health, and technology pages of the New York Times (online) as a way of keeping up, in a layman’s fashion. The NYTimes, in my opinion, has a stable of excellent writers and reporters who tend to stay slightly ahead of the curve of popular reporting.

I was fascinated to find an article by Gina Kolata titled “Does Exercise Really Keep Us Healthy?” Here’s the NYTimes summary:

In Brief:

While exercise can boost mood, its health benefits have been oversold.

Moderate exercise can reduce the risk of diabetes in people at risk. Exercise may reduce the risk of heart disease and breast and colon cancers.

Though the evidence is mixed, exercise may also provide benefits for people with osteoporosis.

Physical activity alone will not lead to sustained weight loss or reduce blood pressure or cholesterol.

I must admit to a penchant for iconoclastic stories — ones that puncture some of our most ingrained beliefs and values. Stories that probe issues with hard questions about the evidence, i.e., “Where’s the beef?”

I’m old enough to remember when nobody talked much about exercise. During my childhood, in the 1950’s, I was about the only kid I knew who liked to go for walks in the outdoors — unless they were officially sanctioned scout hikes. But it wasn’t about the exercise for me — it was about enjoying being out in nature. The fact that I lived on a small farm in the country about a mile and a half from the small town of Lyndon, Illinois (pop. 600) probably had something to do with my attitude. I walked to school and back quite often, preferring the walk in good weather to the school bus.

The only person I ever heard of to take exercise regularly was ex-president Harry S. Truman, who was still alive and living at his home in neighbouring Missouri. There would be occasional press photos of him “taking his constitutional” — his brisk daily walk.

During the late 60’s I remember an episode of the Dick Cavett Show in which the folksinger/actor Theodore Bikel was a guest. Bikel was a large, very rotund, man with a Rabelaisian appetite for life, and a raconteur’s gift of story telling. Exercise was becoming fashionable, largely due to the publication of Kenneth H. Cooper’s Aerobics, which became a best seller. Cavet asked Bikel if he exercised. “Exercise is a bore!” replied Bikel, with a look he might have given if offered a glass of cheap California plonk.

The thing is, Theo Bikel, who will be 85 this year, recently passed through Toronto on tour. He performed his extensive Yiddish repertoire at the North York City Centre. As rotund and unexercised as ever, he still sings well and heartily. Many a well exercised individual has long since passed away with a heart attack while Bikel keeps on singing and entertaining.

Take my own  case. I’ve been a walker all my life. I eat healthy, hearty food. I’ve never had a high cholesterol count or high blood pressure. I’m still relatively slim. When I had a heart attack, my family doctor, whom I think is an excellent medical man, was astonished. “Why you?” he asked me. Nonetheless I have coronary artery disease and it’s been aggressive. My condition, I’m told, is “asymptomatic.” Then I learned from a video on heart disease that as many as 40% of heart patients are asymptomatic. That’s getting close to 50%.

Which is not to say I’m against regular exercise. It’s just that it’s quite possibly an illusion to think it will prevent you from becoming ill. If your genetics predispose you to an illness, it’s doubtful that exercise will stave it off. For your sake, I hope it does, but the science to support the view is shaky.

Still, I take my exercise nearly every day. I know it makes me feel better and more energetic. Whether or not it has deeply beneficial medical benefits is, as they say in Scotland, “not proven.” But that’s okay. Much of life is “unproven” and I don’t see why exercise should be exempt.


About Gene Wilburn

Gene Wilburn is a writer ~ photographer ~ humanist
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7 Responses to “Does Exercise Really Keep Us Healthy?”

  1. Peter Cameron says:

    Good post, Gene.
    A case in point is that of Jim Fixx, seen by many as the father of the American fitness movement. Fixx died at the age of 52 of a massive heart attack, after his daily run. He came from a family with a history of heart problems and had three arteries blocked at 50% to 95%.
    An argument could be made that, in this instance, exercise was probably a contributing factor in his death.

  2. Gene, interesting post. I recall a famous Canadian coach Fred Foot who coached and changed running styles all over the world. He coached Bruce Kidd and Bill Crothers who won many competitions, awards and medals, setting records in the process.

    He passed away due to health related issues and was in his 50’s when he said to disregard his passing because regular disciplined exercise programs were the way to go. It was ironic.

    Strangely as more evidence piles up I can see the truth to what he said however I also filter it through the knowledge of recent medical information which gives genetics a stronger weighting than earlier science used to.

    Like you I feel better for exercise and information confirms mental acuity and emotional improvement through exercise. I may not live longer but I think the quality is improved by physical activity.

  3. Gene says:

    Peter, Jan, thanks to both of you for dropping by!

    I think the key idea for me from the NYTimes article is that “exercise has been oversold.” I DO think it’s important and has benefits — just not as many as we’ve perhaps been led to believe.

  4. kathy says:

    I always took the suggestions for exercise with a big grain of salt. I’ve seen people consume complete garbage for food, sit around lazily and not gain weight and not develop ANY heath issues. I have always been active and was always overweight, which had nothing to do with my diet or activity levels. I know of a person just like Jim Fixx who just died in the middle of his tennis game who was not overweight but who also had family history of health issues. I have lost about 35 lbs in the past year and half doing less activity then before because I stopped eating wheat and started getting b12 shots. When this started happening I made a decision not to listen to anymore of this fanaticism of what is healthy because I realized you cannot change your genetic make up. Sure you shouldn’t go making yourself sicker…but what are you going to do if regardless of your efforts you can’t change much? Drive yourself nuts ?!? :)

  5. Gene says:

    Kathy, good points. I’ve never seen my step-dad take a walk, or eat anything healthy. When not working, he sits in a chair, watches TV, and munches. He’s very what the med profession would call overweight. He turned 95 this year and is still going strong. His dad looked about the same, acted about the same, and lived well into his 90’s. Genes are the ‘random zap’ of life.

  6. yin yoga says:

    well written and informative post!!!

  7. Gene says:

    yin yoga, thank you for reading this and commenting!

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