Understanding Why Exercise Is Medicine

Group of people on elliptical trainer exercising in gym
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Around the year 600 B.C., a physician from India by the name of Sushruta stressed the importance of physical activity on one’s health. Fast forward 2,600 years: Scientists have learned that lifelong exercise can make your body feel as much as 30 years younger. But even so, there’s a growing trend of our society becoming more sedentary.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. are reaching the weekly exercise recommendations of at least 150 minutes each week. Not listening to Sushruta’s early advice has created significant public health consequences. We are seeing higher rates of medication use, obesity, chronic diseases and many other negative health effects.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve also learned that the severity of COVID-19 has been linked to not getting enough exercise. While we’ve known for centuries exercise is good for us, we still don’t know enough about how exercise decreases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and many other conditions.

To answer these questions, the National Institutes of Health has invested $170 million across 31 scientific laboratories to comprehensively map the effects of exercise training on health. This study, called the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium, or MoTrPAC, is the largest exercise study ever done. Researchers will follow and collect data from about 1,700 people who will exercise throughout their lives. An interesting part of this project is discovering how our organs “speak” to each other. Similar to how hormones are released from one organ and have an effect on another—such as adrenaline’s effect on a racing heart—this project will look at muscle, blood and fat tissue in people and animals to discover how exercise helps organs talk to each other. Learning about this language, called “crosstalk,” will help us understand more about the benefits of exercise and help treat many different diseases.

While the sticker price is quite high, this six-year investment into the public health of our society is far less than the cost we pay for being sedentary. By learning more about how exercise works, medical professionals can better prescribe exercise as medicine. This in turn can decrease the economic burden on taxpayer-supported health care, saving all of us money in the long run. Researchers look forward to seeing the results of the study that will help explain what Sushruta knew all those years ago: Exercise is important.

Kevin Gries, PhD, is an assistant professor in exercise and sports science at Marian University in Indianapolis. His research focuses on the effects of exercise on the aging process, particularly within skeletal muscle. Gries is also interested in how aging and exercise affects organ crosstalk in muscle, adipose tissue and bone. Outside the laboratory, he enjoys practicing what he preaches through endurance exercise and spending time with family.

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