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n a recent meeting with Dr. David Satcher, the United States surgeon general, the major public health concerns and their impact on the health of Americans were highlighted. These 10 leading health indicators (see sidebar) reflect the individual behaviors, physical and social environmental factors, and important health system issues that greatly affect the health of people and communities. The expected category of tobacco use was not the top-ranking priority this time. Instead, physical activity (or the lack thereof) headed the list. As surprising as this announcement might be to many, those of us who have been promoting simple, positive behaviors feel affirmed. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has advocated eight natural "doctors," often identified by Weimar Institute's acronym, NEWSTART--nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, air, rest, and trust in divine power.

There is a growing alignment among health authorities that simple, often unheralded, lifestyle habits are extremely relevant in improving the health status of Americans.

Regular Physical Activity Increases Longevity
Brisk walking on a daily basis can reduce the workload of the heart by at least 30 percent. How does this happen?

Two of the best doctors in the world are your left and right legs. The continuous, rhythmic action of the legs during walking causes the large muscles of the legs to contract. The muscles "squeeze" the arteries, thereby increasing circulation of the blood and the oxygen it carries. This action accommodates the greater demand for fuel during the increased activity. The arteries respond by dilating, or widening, allowing more blood volume with each stroke of the heart. Therefore, the heart doesn't have to pump as hard and often to get the blood where it needs to go. You get more for less--that is, more blood, oxygen, and nutrients for the cells of your body with less work.

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This helps explain, in part, how simple walking can help reduce the risk of a number one killer: heart disease. Because the force with which the heart has to pump is decreased, the phenomenon is reflected by a drop in your blood pressure. So the heart is working smarter, not harder. And that means it can often last longer. The heart muscle actually strengthens with gradually increased duration and frequency of walking sessions. Several sessions per day, as brief as 10 minutes per session, have proved beneficial.

Walking and Your Mental Health
"Exercise is emotional aerobics," states Bob Conroy, M.D., a psychiatrist from the Henninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Clinical evidence suggests that aerobic activity (activity that promotes deep breathing and utilization of oxygen) builds emotional hardiness in a number of ways:

  • Energizes (because of increased oxygen uptake).
  • Relieves tension and anxiety (rids body of toxic stress chemicals).
  • Strengthens the body's stress-coping mechanism.
  • Cleans the mind and improves concentration.
  • Encourages a more positive self-image and improves self-confidence.
  • Contributes to feelings of exhilaration and physical well-being (releases endorphins into the bloodstream).
  • Improves sleep.
  • Alleviates depression.

Physical Activity Protects Against
the Health Risks of Obesity

Considerable attention has been placed on the increasing prevalence of obesity in our society. Overweight/obesity is the second-leading health indicator and prioritized issue in our nation.

Physical activity provides protection against the health risks of obesity primarily by reducing and/or renewing the development of a progressive disease process known as insulin-resistance syndrome or syndrome X. This syndrome is characterized by central obesity (body fat especially concentrated in the abdominal area), high blood fats, high levels of insulin, and high blood pressure.

Why would a cell be unable to open its "door" (insulin receptors) to the fuel (glucose) that it must have in order to provide energy? Fat in the diet and on the body tends to "clog" or reconfigure the "lock" on those "doors," and insulin, acting as the "key" to unlock the "doors," discovers that the locks have been changed. Exercise has been shown to be extremely helpful in convincing the furnaces of the cells (mitochondria) to rev up when there is a reason to do so. Exercise gives them the reason they need to start the fires--they now have trips that require fuel.

If there is one word to describe an important principle that governs the body's physiology, it is need. If we don't provide a need for the furnace to be activated, the fuel (glucose) won't be allowed to enter the furnace room as easily. Therefore, exercising provides that need and, hence, can lower the blood sugar as well as help control the body fat.

"If a larger percentage of the population became physically active, the public health burden associated with obesity would be greatly reduced," stated Drs. Gregory Welk, Iowa State University, and Steven Blair, Cooper Institute, Dallas.

Social Implications of Regular Physical Activity
The vast majority of research studies looking at the effects of exercise on the body focus on the physiological and psychological benefits of activity. However, it would be inappropriate not to comment on the importance of physical activity as it relates to the social functioning of everyone--especially older people.

Leading Health Indicators

  • Physical Activity
  • Overweight and Obesity
  • Substance Abuse
  • Responsible Sexual Behavior
  • Mental Health
  • Injury and Violence
  • Environmental Quality
  • Immunization
  • Access to Health Care

  • Until recent years physical activity programming for older adults tended to focus on a relatively small subgroup. However, it is now clear that beneficial effects of regular physical activity can be observed in almost all older persons, regardless of their physical health. Even for those seniors who were previously thought to be too old or too frail to partake in structured exercise, research has proven otherwise. Physical activity programs enhance social and intercultural interactions for many older adults.

    In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mayor John Street and I have started a health revolution. We are discovering that the neighborhood walking groups being organized are facilitating and encouraging positive social interactions among our residents. The city is becoming more reflective of our name--Philadelphia, meaning "brotherly love."

    Spiritual Implications of Exercise
    If it is true that exercise increases the oxygen levels of the cells of the body, including the brain (and it does), thereby enhancing the ability to think and reason, then I am in a better position to "hear" the Holy Spirit speak to me, and I can more clearly perceive His direction. Additionally, I will achieve more energy and endurance to become more active in ministry and soul winning. Exercise requires discipline, a word related to disciple. Christ's disciples are disciplined. "A man without self-control is as defenseless as a city with broken-down walls" (Prov. 25:28, TLB).

    Health Impact of Physical Activity--A Summary
    Regular physical activity is associated with lower death rates for adults of any age, even when only moderate levels of physical activity are performed. Regular physical activity decreases the risk of death from heart disease, lowers the risk of developing diabetes, and is associated with a decreased risk of colon cancer. Regular physical activity helps prevent high blood pressure and helps reduce blood pressure in persons with elevated levels.

    Regular physical activity also:

    • Increases muscle and bone strength.
    • Increases lean muscle and helps decrease body fat.
    • Aids in weight control and is a key part of any weight-loss program.
    • Enhances psychological well-being and may even reduce the risk of developing depression.
    • Appears to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and to improve mood.

    Ellen G. White decades ago stated, "The more we exercise, the better will be the circulation of the blood" (Healthful Living, p. 132). "I frequently turn from the bedside of these self-made invalids," she wrote, "saying to myself, 'Dying by inches, dying of indolence [lack of activity], a disease which no one but themselves can cure'" (ibid., p. 134).

    If It's So Beneficial, Why
    Don't More People Exercise?

    The major barriers to increased physical activity are lack of time, lack of access to convenient facilities, and lack of safe environments in which to be active.

    People usually manage to find time for what they value. When we become convinced that health is important to our quality of life, we are more likely to schedule the activity that promotes it. For many people, only when it becomes more painful not to change will they begin the process. For me it became important enough that I extended the beginning of my day to 4:30 a.m. This additional hour allows my husband and me to walk and spend quality time in meaningful exchange, which we otherwise had not been able to enjoy. One reporter, when following and observing my daily routine, wrote that my exercise opportunities qualified as "functional fitness." I like that characterization because it accurately describes my philosophy of exercise--I don't "do" machines, gyms, or choreographed movements. I prefer to take the steps rather than the escalator and walk rather than drive. In other words, I engage in useful, deliberate activity that serves a function. I still belong to the human race, so every morning I say to myself, "Mind over mattress!"

    Health authorities wholeheartedly concur with Ellen White when she suggested that walking is by far the more "preferable form of exercise." We all agree--it's safe, economical, and easy.

    Let our prayer be, "You made my body, Lord; now give me the sense to heed Your laws."

    Gwen Foster carries the official title of Health and Fitness Czar for the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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    © 2002, Adventist Review.