Myriad physical and mental benefits of exercise

Prof Risteárd Mulcahy , a life-long advocate of exercise, attempts to stimulate the sedentary into getting and staying fit

Prof Risteárd Mulcahy, a life-long advocate of exercise, attempts to stimulate the sedentary into getting and staying fit

'I was a couch potato until I reached my 38th year, when I started my long-term exercise and fitness regime, largely by accident.

I had stopped rowing at University College Dublin (UCD) after I qualified as a doctor at the age of 23.

A prolonged period of snow in the spring of 1960 prevented me from playing my weekly leisurely game of golf, so I was invited by a friend to play a game of squash. I became captivated by the very active physical exercise and by the competitive nature of the game.

As I achieved fitness over the following months, I found a great feeling of satisfaction after such a bout of heavy exercise, a mounting feeling of physical wellbeing and mental exhilaration, and a long-term enhancement of physical self-esteem.

If you wish to take up an aerobic exercise programme aimed at physical fitness, you need to have a reason to do so.

You also need a prolonged period of graduated exercise before you achieve an optimum degree of activity.

If you are poorly motivated, you are unlikely to persist and to continue over the long-term. The following paragraphs are an attempt to stimulate successful motivation among the sedentary.

By adopting an active aerobic exercise programme you may succeed in losing excess weight without strict dieting or, if you are inclined to suffer from depression, you may improve your mood without resorting to drugs.

I believe the medical profession is still slow in appreciating the value of aerobic exercise in the management of depression and other psychological conditions and that exercise is at times a better alternative to drugs.

The best antidote to stress and a tendency to ennui I know is regular vigorous aerobic exercise leading to fitness.

And for most of us this can be achieved through graduated walking, jogging or running. But be warned - if you do not adhere to a regular programme, you may well fall by the wayside.

For the younger person and the middle-aged, ball games such as tennis and squash provide the same benefit; and indoor soccer too, as long as the players are of the same vintage.

Outdoor or group exercise will encourage contact with other people and will enrich your life through better social cohesion. My social contacts during my running career, meeting people of every description, class and occupation, were invaluable in maintaining my interest, curiosity and confidence.

Since I stopped running, I get the same benefits when out walking or cycling.

I also found that walking or jogging under pleasant circumstances may provide an opportunity for quiet contemplation and communing with nature and our surroundings - a substitute perhaps for prayer and meditation.

Apart from these considerations, a long-term aerobic exercise programme provides immense benefits in terms of physical as well as mental health.

It is now beyond doubt that the physically active person is less liable to heart disease and there is mounting research and epidemiological evidence that the active person is less likely to suffer from the common cancers of the bowel, breast and prostate. The results of scientific studies confirming the influence of exercise in preventing cancer are widely available on the web.

However, it is important to add this caveat; much recent research by exercise physiologists and epidemiologists confirms that moderate exercise, such as walking 30 minutes four to five times a week may be equally effective in promoting health and longevity.

More vigorous aerobic exercise is mostly aimed at the physical and psychological benefits and at the social advantages of a more sustained exercise regime.

Risteárd Mulcahy is Professor of Preventive Cardiology (emeritus)