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THE MAGIC PILL THAT'S NOT A PILL


If there were a pill which if taken once daily slowed aging, shrank fat, improved wound healing, enhanced vision, increased bone density, normalized blood sugar, reduced fatigue, improved memory, regenerated cells and energized you while also dulling pain and lightening mood, would you take it? What if, in addition to making you smarter, this pill also immunized you from cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease, not to mention early death by adding at least 5 years to your life. And it can be taken by anyone, young and old, healthy and sick, with the same host of benefits, which are almost immediate. Intrigued yet? Did I mention that this pill is free, only costing you about a half hour a day of your time? 

Truth is, this pill is not a pill at all. But if it were, exercise would likely be the most popular and pricey pharmaceutical ever developed. Because in contrast to drugs, the only side effect associated with a body in motion is some weight gain in the form of muscle. But only if you supplement the recommended 150 minutes of weekly cardiovascular activity with 2 strength-training sessions. And if you do you're one of only 20% of Americans to meet exercise requirements. You're also probably on the sunny side of 50, since most baby boomers get no exercise at all. But even if you're young there is a chance you live chained to the chair, whether in the car, at the dinner table or in classroom or office, since over 80 million Americans in kindergarten and older are inactive. With nearly half of high school students not getting weekly PE, and only 15% of elementary schools requiring physical education at least three days a week, it's no surprise that childhood obesity is on the rise and that the majority of American kids have what's been called "exercise-deficit disorder."

What if the dangers of not taking this pill that's not a pill, in other words being inactive, include arthritis, lower-back pain and depression and anxiety? So are you in? I won't belabor it.

As Mandy Oaklander writing this week's Time Magazine feature story explains, today's science is finally bearing out the advice of classic physicians like Hippocrates, who famously wrote that "eating alone will not keep a man well. He must also take exercise."

In mice with a genetic disease causing them to age prematurely, those who ran on a treadmill three times a week were indistinguishable from healthy mice. Unlike their sedentary counterparts, with their shriveled muscles, thin skin, bald heads, bad ears and weak hearts, regular physical activity almost completely prevented premature aging. And while half of sedentary mice are found on autopsy to have tumors, those rodents who are coaxed onto the treadmill on a daily basis have no incidence of cancer.

There has been a lot of hype about gene therapy for people with genetic disease, but as genetic metabolic neurologist Mark Tarnopolsky explains, the most effective therapy available to kids with DNA mutations is simply breaking a sweat. Going for a run improves skin health, eye health, gonadal health and helps the body regenerate and repair. Even in stroke survivors, once told not to overdo things, exercise is now known to be the most effective form of rehabilitation.

So how to go about increasing the amount of moderate- to high-intensity exercise in your day? For those unlike me who do not wish to run, bike, swim and lift for the love of it, moderate activities include walking the dog, going for a hike, playing with kids, gardening and house cleaning. Not to mention mowing the grass, raking leaves, taking the stairs, shopping (if you park far enough away) and watering the yard, though in the drought we're in you didn't hear me say that. I wonder if sex counts too. (It does: 30 minutes of love making is the negative caloric equivalent of a 2-mile run, provided you orgasm. Who wouldn't? Duh! The better question is whether coitus goes toward endurance or strength. Depends upon the position, is my guess.)

Anyway, marathon sex sessions aside, you should aim for thirty minutes a day of activity either all at once or broken up into intervals of at least ten minutes. High-intensity interval training provides a way to squeeze more fitness into a shorter period of time. All-out bursts of speed are as effective as longer workouts. This means that running a mile as fast as you can, for instance, is just as good for your mood and heart as slogging through three miles on that tired old route, and it saves you 20 minutes and all that boredom. Just don't forget to invest in a set of weights or resistance bands and strengthen your body with compound movements such as squats and presses. Yoga, tai chi and Pilates, as well as body-weight movements like pull-ups, push-ups, planks and dips also suffice. Aim for ten sets two times each week. And I suppose that carrying around a toddler can double as a gym session, provided you switch arms. So moms: ditch that stroller.

Scientists now believe that in the future doctors will prescribe specific forms of vigorous activity to prevent and treat various types of disease. So consider yourself prescribed. But remember that it's not just about getting your half hour of movement in today. People who are active throughout the waking hours increase their life span, regardless of how far they run, or swim or bike. So get moving.

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