Why Muscles Make Good Medicine

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Directly extracted from Exercise Sport Science Australia.

If you still see exercising as an optional extra, not a health essential, science is finding more reasons to change your thinking – including new research that suggests strong muscles are good medicine.

One of the most compelling findings of recent years is that muscles are actually an exceptional secretory organ and when we exercise them they release hormone-like chemicals that have a significant influence on every system of the body, says Rob Newton, Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia.

“Doing aerobic exercise and ignoring strength exercises is like remembering to change the oil in the car but ignoring the transmission fluid.”

The  effects of these chemicals, called myokines, include reducing such thing as inflammation in the body thought to contribute to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and possibly working as tumour suppressants.

“Some studies have found that extracting blood from exercising humans and adding it to cancer cells in test ESSA Blogtubes slows the rate of cell reproduction,” he says. “In a study of mice, the growth of breast cancer cells was halted in mice that exercised, while the cancer continued developing in mice that were inactive.”

This may be one reason why exercise appears to help reduce the risk of some cancers and improve survival in people with cancer.

“Some types of exercise, including strength training, also produce a surge of the hormone testosterone which helps sharpen thinking and memory,” he adds.

Then there’s the effect of exercise on mitochondria, the little energy ‘factories’ in our cells, when you exercise your body makes more mitochondria and the more you have the more you are able to do.

“But when you’re inactive, the numbers of mitochondria decline so it gets harder to do things,” Newton explains. “If you become ill when you already have fewer mitochondria it’s harder to recover.”

Through these examples, it’s evident why an exercise habit is like a pill that boosts energy, strength and improves resistance to many diseases, he says and if we want to reduce the risk of inactivity-driven diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and  Alzheimer’s, we need a regular dose all the way from childhood to old age.

It’s not just adults who’ve been forced into inactivity by 21st century lifestyles. When did you last see a toddler walking in a shopping centre? It’s more common to see toddlers and even older children sitting in strollers or shopping trolleys and it’s easy to see why. Wheeling little kids around is more convenient than walking at their pace. Yet if you check Australia’s latest Physical Activity Guidelines, spending long periods in car seats and strollers isn’t on the to-do list ‘all children (birth to 5 years) should not be sedentary, restrained, or kept inactive, for more than one hour at a time, with the exception of sleeping’ is the recommendation.

“Once I would have said that it’s in the teens when children leave school that physical activity declines, but kids are becoming less active at younger ages,” says Newton. “Screen time is up but there are also other factors including concerns about litigation or safety that lead to limits on what children are allowed to do, like banning monkey bars or even lunchtime sport in some schools.”

And although we hear a lot about kids needing calcium for strong bones, only physical activity will build bone, he adds.

Ironically, among the tips for bone and muscle building moves for 5 to 12 year olds from the Physical Activity Guidelines is … climbing or swinging on monkey bars and climbing frames. Other suggestions are games like tug o’ war (tugging is great for muscle) and hopscotch (jumping is good for bone), along with dance, gymnastics and martial arts.

Prime time for bone growth is childhood, adolescence and young adulthood , getting as much bone in the ‘bank’ between now and 30 is a hedge against the gradual bone loss that starts after 40.

Between 20 to 50, exercise boosts performance. Because these are peak years for building careers and families, time is often short but being physically active helps the mind and body work better, improving productivity, Newton says.

“If you say, ‘I’ve got kids so there’s no time to exercise’, it’s worth remembering that you won’t be much good for your kids if you have a heart attack.”

While aerobic exercise to prevent heart disease is important, we also need two to three sessions of strength training a week, he says.

“Doing aerobic exercise like walking, running or cycling and ignoring strength exercises is like remembering to change the oil in the car regularly but ignoring the transmission fluid.”

Exercising between 50 -65 is disease-proofing for better health. An exercise habit now will help stave off chronic diseases that can blight older age.

“If you’re planning to travel in retirement but get to 65 with problems like overweight, arthritis and muscle loss it won’t be so much fun,” says Newton, stressing that conserving muscle and bone with strength training will help head off frailty further down the track.

Walking is terrific for helping prevent cardiovascular disease but does nothing for building muscle or bone, strength training needs to incorporated.

“Regular strength training also provides muscles with a built-in repair kit. It causes satellite cells attached to the outside of muscle cells to proliferate and donate nuclei to muscle tissue, allowing new cells to grow and repair, so even though you’re older, muscles are still strong and tuned for repair and growth.

“Exercising muscle also helps control blood glucose levels, if you have low muscle mass you can’t control blood sugar levels very well and this increases risk of diabetes.”

Exercising when you’re 60 and over, you’d think that the generation most likely to pick up weights are 20 or 30-somethings doing CrossFit, but strength training now has considerable traction with the over-60s, says Newton.

“It doesn’t have to be strength training at the gym – it can be gardening if there’s lifting and digging involved. The number one reason people go into dependent care is frailty and this is the age group with the most to lose if muscle strength dwindles, but a lot to gain if they can slow muscle loss down.”

Physiotherapists and Accredited Exercise Physiologists at MediGYM can assist you in designing an individually tailored program for your needs. You can contact us on 9960 6166 for further information.


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