Medical Matters: Give your body a break by adding a little exercise to your daily routine

Exercise does more than just consume calories, writes Muiris Houston


So how has the festive season been for you? Despite your best efforts, did you overindulge in food and drink, but maybe you managed a few walks in an effort to shrug off the cobwebs?

Well, I have some good news if that was the case: research published just before Christmas has found that daily exercise lessens many of the harmful physiological effects of short-term overeating and inactivity.

Researchers from the University of Bath found that a daily bout of exercise generates vast physiological benefits even when you consume thousands of calories more than you are burning.

In the study, published in the Journal of Physiology, 26 healthy young men were asked to be generally inactive in their daily activities. Half of the group then exercised daily on a treadmill for 45 minutes.

Everyone was asked to overeat: the non-exercising group increased their caloric intake by 50 per cent, while the exercising group increased by 75 per cent, so everyone’s net daily energy surplus was the same.

Striking results
After one week, the groups had blood insulin measurements and biopsies of fat tissue taken, with striking results.

The non-exercising group showed a significant and unhealthy decline in their blood sugar control, and their fat cells were over-expressing genes linked to unhealthy metabolic changes and were under-expressing genes involved in well-functioning metabolism. However, the exercising group had stable blood sugar levels and their fat cells showed less “undesirable” genetic expression.

Lead author Dr Dylan Thompson noted: “If you are facing a period of overconsumption and inactivity, which is probably quite common around Christmas time, then our study shows that a daily bout of exercise will prevent many of the negative changes from taking place even though you are gaining weight.”

Hopefully larger studies involving men and women of all age groups will replicate this promising message.

For those of you thinking about health resolutions for the New Year, you could do worse than focus on exercise. A study published in the British Medical Journal in October suggested exercise can be as effective as many frequently prescribed drugs in treating some of the leading causes of death.

The BMJ paper was a meta-analysis – a study of other studies – of drugs versus exercise in the treatment of four common diseases: heart failure, coronary heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Researchers managed to find trials involving some 14,700 people which examined the effects of exercise on mortality.

For two of the conditions, the results suggest drugs and exercise produce almost the same outcomes.

People with coronary heart disease who took drugs such as statins and anti-platelets had the same risk of dying from heart disease as patients who exercised regularly but did not take preventive medication. The same appeared to be the case for diabetes.

In chronic heart failure, however, people who took diuretics (water tablets) had lower death rates compared with those who exercised. And somewhat surprisingly, those who had suffered a stroke and exercised had significantly less risk of dying from a stroke than those taking typically prescribed medication.

The authors were careful not to conclude that patients should give up their medication in any of these chronic diseases. “We are not suggesting that anyone stop taking their medications,” Huseyin Naci of the London School of Economics said. “But maybe people could think long and hard about their lifestyles and talk to their doctors about whether exercise could be incorporated into their care.”

More studies
We need far more refined studies to fully test the benefits of exercise in comparison with preventive medications. For example, we need to know how much exercise of different type and intensity confers the most benefit. But in the meantime, adding a regular dose of moderately intense exercise to your daily schedule could be a resolution well worth sticking with. Have a happy and healthy New Year.

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