Thirty minutes of exercise a day can benefit your heart, bones, joints. - Photo from

Sweat is Medicine

For some people, exercise is the longest four-letter word.

The mere mention of it conjures visions of endless climbs up StairMaster machines, screaming music in crowded aerobics classes filled with skinny people and wet floors in strangely smelly locker rooms.

But being physically active doesn't have to be unpleasant. And the potential benefits may be enough to propel you off the couch and out the door.

Everyone knows exercise is good for your heart, your bones and your joints. But did you know it can lessen dementia associated with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease?

It can prevent diabetes and its common complications like kidney and eye damage. And it may reduce your risk for some cancers, including those of the breast, colon, prostate and pancreas.

Dr. Eric Coris, director of Primary Care Sports Medicine at the University of South Florida, says physical activity is one of the most powerful tools we have to prevent, improve or treat at least 47 health problems ranging from cancer to menstrual cramps. Exercise works by improving blood flow, reducing inflammation and promoting weight loss. Just reducing body fat hinders the production of hormones like estrogen that feed certain cancerous tumors.

The American College of Sports Medicine takes the exercise-wellness connection so literally that it recently launched an initiative called "Exercise is Medicine." Its goal is to get all physicians to prescribe exercise for their patients.

"Without a doubt, exercise really is medicine and, in fact, it can be seen as the much-needed vaccine to prevent chronic disease and premature death," the program's creator, Dr. Robert Sallis, wrote in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

But Coris points out, "That doesn't mean you have to don spandex and join a spin class." Physical activity doesn't have to take place in a gym to count. "And it doesn't have to mean you're training for a triathlon. It should be something you enjoy," says Coris.

That means walking, dancing, skating, cycling and paddling a canoe all count. So do the more mundane activities of daily living like vacuuming, washing and waxing the car, and raking leaves. It's even better if you make it a family affair and jump rope or play tag with the kids, throw a Frisbee for the dog or plan an active vacation. "Whatever it takes that makes exercise less objectionable," Coris says.

To reap the benefits, you should do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days of the week.

Translation: At least four days a week, spend at least 30 minutes doing something that leaves you feeling a little winded. Ideally, you should keep moving for an hour, but some activity is always better than none.

Add to your cardio regimen at least a couple of strength-training sessions each week, but not on consecutive days. Use your body weight for moves such as squats and pushups, or use free weights. Rather than buying 1- or 2-pound weights, pick up a 16- or 32-ounce can of tomatoes or a container of peanut butter from the pantry. Soon, you'll graduate to dumbbells.

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