Help prevent cancer, have great sex, and more!
Gillian Flower, ND
Men, turn off the game on TV, and enjoy the many benefits of exercise. It improves cardiovascular health, prevents cancer and diabetes, and boosts your sex life.
Listing the benefits of exercise sounds a bit like the start of a late-night infomercial for some gadget that sounds too good to be true. Feel happier? Live longer? Stop memory loss and help prevent cancer? But it is true … and all this could be yours for just three weekly workouts of 50 minutes each!
Canadian physical activity guidelines state that each of us should be exercising for at least 150 minutes each week. Although Canadian men are less likely than their female counterparts to utilize health care services, they can feel somewhat smug about their successes in the exercise department: men consistently incorporate more exercise into their daily lives than women. However, only 15 percent of all adults are meeting the national targets of 2.5 hours per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise.
While weight loss is an important result of exercise for many people, exercise has far broader effects on overall health; understanding its consequences just may motivate you to make better friends with your gym membership.
1. More energy and better sleep
A common reason for not exercising is a lack of energy. This can be a tough hurdle to cross but once you get those first few workouts under your belt, it’s much easier to continue. Physical activity builds physical capacity, meaning that the more you exercise, the easier those same activities will be in the future. Outside the gym this also means that you will experience less fatigue when going about your daily activities. Of course, this means that at the end of the day, you’ll have that much more energy to exercise!
Adding physical activity into your daily life will also improve your energy levels by supporting healthy sleep. Sleep is intrinsically tied to circadian rhythms—the cycles of hormones within our bodies that drive many of our physical processes. Regular exercise improves sleep quality and has been shown to improve even chronic insomnia. In addition, exercise can help the body adapt to changes in the sleep/wake schedule resulting from travel or shift work. Better sleep will lead to less daytime fatigue and greater energy reserves in your day-to-day life.
2. Pain management
Pre-existing injury or generalized pain is another important factor preventing some men from becoming more active. Although extra care is warranted when exercising with injuries, physical activity can reduce pain and the limitations that it may pose.
Chronic back pain is one complaint that may be markedly improved by exercise-based therapy. However, musculoskeletal pain is not the only discomfort to be relieved by exercise. A recent investigation into the role of aerobic exercise in men with chronic prostatitis showed significantly decreased pain levels in the study group.
Prioritizing physical activity can also help to ward off future discomfort. In a recent study of exercise and back pain, participants with the poorest fitness levels at baseline were those most likely to have developed back pain in follow-up visits six years later, meaning that poor fitness may be considered a risk factor for back problems. Other research shows that targeted stretching and strengthening exercises may help to prevent the occurrence of specific injuries altogether.
3. Immune workout
The preventive benefits of exercise extend to other body systems as well. Engaging in just 20 minutes of daily exercise has significant impacts on the strength and activity of the immune system. Increased immune surveillance reduces the risk of respiratory infections such as the common cold.
Intensive training has been shown to decrease immune activity but as this is really only of concern to elite athletes, this is no reason to skip the gym!
If you need another reason to get active, could the promise of a more fulfilling sex life motivate you? Regular activity builds endurance and strength, making all other physical pursuits that much easier. A study of men with sexual dysfunction showed that exercising for 180 minutes per week improved their satisfaction with their sex lives. In a similar study erectile function was specifically improved in active participants. Regular exercise has also been shown to decrease the risk of sexual dysfunction before it starts.
Pelvic floor exercises, or Kegel exercises, play an important role in men’s sexual health. Men struggling with sexual dysfunction after prostate removal report significant improvements after incorporating exercises to strengthen pelvic floor muscles. Beginning these exercises shortly after surgery intensifies their benefit (check with your health care practitioner first). Some experts recommend that all men perform regular Kegel exercises to preserve and enhance their sexual function (see sidebar below).
5. Brain building
In addition to promoting a healthy and happy sex life, regular exercise will also help to preserve the function of another organ of concern to men as they age: the brain. Regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise over the lifespan reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease by as much as 40 percent. Exercising at least three times per week may cut the risk of dementia by 21 percent. While the connection between these conditions and exercise habits is not yet fully understood, physical activity is protective.
Even without a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, cognitive function tends to decline over the lifespan. Regular physical activity can preserve the ability to perform mental tasks such as recalling dates and locations over time. If you are noticing deficiencies in your memory, introduce a plan of moderate exercise to increase memory and benefit brain function.
6. Movement for mood
Simple but regular exercise strategies will support other key functions of the brain. Committing to an ongoing routine of physical activity can reduce your risk of developing depression. If depression has already been diagnosed, introducing regular activity may provide substantial support to other care you may be receiving. The mood-balancing effects of exercise are thought to result from endorphins and other brain chemicals that are released during physical activity.
If you are not clinically depressed but just feeling bogged down by the pressures of your daily life, you will also benefit from exercise. Physical activity provides many opportunities for the expression of frustrations and stresses as you run, pedal, and crunch your way to fitness.
In addition, physical training actually changes the body’s response to psychological strain. Compared to their untrained counterparts, trained athletes have lower heart rates, decreased cortisol levels, and calmer mood states in the face of pressure. Blunting the stress response through activity may shield the body from the effects of chronic stress.
7. Quality (and quantity) of life
Aside from helping with specific issues such as depression and the management of life stressors, exercise has significant and positive effects on the overall health-related quality of our lives. This hefty claim is borne out by research showing that the more time a person spends exercising in leisure time, the more likely they are to have better mental health, less pain, and a higher level of social functioning. Those who don’t exercise show comparable declines in these indicators of life quality.
But the benefits don’t stop there: in addition to improving life quality, exercise contributes to longer life. Compared to mildly active men, those who are highly active cut their risk of death from any cause by 22 percent. Increasing your moderate-intensity physical activity by just one hour per week will decrease your risk of death from all causes by 4 percent. If you are searching for exercise motivation, consider these statistics.
8. Exercise your heart
The benefits of aerobic exercise to cardiovascular health are well documented, and a sedentary lifestyle is a known risk factor for heart attack and stroke. A recent study put this into perspective by demonstrating that owning both a car and a television increases the risk of heart attack by 27 percent. On the flip side, incorporating moderate physical activity into your life will significantly decrease the risk of heart attack or stroke by up to 63 percent.
Many risk factors contribute to cardiovascular risk, but high blood pressure (hypertension) and elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol are commonly cited culprits. Whereas pharmaceutical therapies such as beta blockers or statins will address one of these targets at a time, exercise can modify several factors simultaneously (however, don’t stop your medications without consulting your health care practitioner).
A recent study using recreational soccer drills as a treatment (one hour, three times a week for three months) showed significant reductions in blood pressure and LDL in addition to causing a decrease in body fat. Definitely more fun than pills.
9. Curbing cancer
When considered collectively, cancers of all types are the leading cause of death among Canadian men. Cancer does not discriminate: it affects men of all ages and ethnicities. Nonetheless, some risk factors are within your control and may significantly decrease your risk of getting cancer. Exercise is one of these factors.
Population studies consistently show that exercise protects against many types of cancer. Leisure-time physical activity decreases colon cancer risk in men by 20 percent. Prostate cancer rates drop by almost 10 percent in exercising men, while trends in kidney cancer are similar. Physical activity is far from being a guarantee against a cancer diagnosis, but it does appear to provide some added insurance.
In men who have cancer, exercise is an important part of a recovery strategy. Brisk walking may contribute to delayed progression in clinically localized prostate cancer, while regular activity decreases the chance of dying from colon cancer. During prostate cancer treatment, exercise may reduce fatigue and other associated side effects.
10. Diabetes protection
Aside from cardiovascular disease and cancer, regular workouts help to protect against other chronic diseases, such as diabetes. Type 2 or late-onset diabetes occurs when the body becomes insensitive to insulin, preventing glucose from entering the cells. Left untreated, the resulting high levels of sugar in the blood can lead to severe complications such as blindness, limb loss, and kidney failure.
The goal of diabetic therapy is a reduction in blood sugar levels. Exercise can significantly reduce hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a standard measure of blood glucose control. This improvement may be caused by a renewed sensitivity of body cells to insulin.
Physical activity also markedly decreases the risk of developing diabetes, by as much as 65 percent in some studies. It is interesting to note that the protective effect of exercise is not reliant upon weight loss: risk reduction is independent of body weight.
Although physical activity may never get its 15 minutes of infomercial fame, it holds tremendous potential for the physical and mental health of every Canadian man. Try some today!
Kegel exercises may help to preserve and enhance function of the male reproductive and urinary systems.
How to get ahead in exercising: 5 tips to get you started