Exercise, Part 1: Exercise Postpones Death

Earlier this month, many folks made New Years’ resolutions to start exercising in conjunction with their other resolution to lose excess weight. I’ve got bad news for them.

Exercise is overrated as a pathway to major weight loss.

Sure, a physically inactive young man with only five or 10 pounds (2 to 4 kg) to lose might be able to do it simply by starting an exercise program. That doesn’t work nearly as well for women. The problem is that exercise stimulates appetite, so any calories burned by exercise tend to be counteracted by increased food consumption.

"Should I go with aerobic or strength training....?"

On the other hand, exercise is particularly important for diabetics and prediabetics in two respects: 1) it helps in avoidance of overweight, especially after weight loss, and 2) it helps control blood sugar levels by improving insulin resistance, perhaps even bypassing it.

Even if it doesn’t help much with weight loss, regular physical activity has myriad general health benefits. First, let’s look at its effect on death rates.   


As many as 250,000 deaths per year in the United States (approximately 12% of the total) are attributable to a lack of regular physical activity. We know now that regular physical activity can prevent a significant number of these deaths.

Exercise induces metabolic changes that lessen the impact of, or prevent altogether, several major illnesses, such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, diabetes, and obesity. There are also psychological benefits. Even if you’re just interested in looking better, awareness of exercise’s other advantages can be motivational.

Exercise is defined as planned, structured, and repetitive bodily movement done to improve or maintain physical fitness.

Physical fitness is a set of attributes that relate to your ability to perform physical activity. These attributes include resting heart rate, blood pressure at rest and during exercise, lung capacity, body composition (weight in relation to height, percentage of body fat and muscle, bone structure), and aerobic power.

Aerobic power takes some explanation. Muscles perform their work by contracting, which shortens the muscles, pulling on attached tendons or bones. The resultant movement is physical activity. Muscle contraction requires energy, which is obtained from chemical reactions that use oxygen. Oxygen from the air we breathe is delivered to muscle tissue by the lungs, heart, and blood vessels. The ability of the cardiopulmonary system to transport oxygen from the atmosphere to the working muscles is called maximal oxygen uptake, or aerobic power. It’s the primary factor limiting performance of muscular activity.

Aerobic power is commonly measured by having a person perform progressively more difficult exercise on a treadmill or bicycle to the point of exhaustion. The treadmill test starts at a walking pace and gets faster and steeper every few minutes. The longer the subject can last on the treadmill, the greater his aerobic power. A large aerobic power is one of the most reliable indicators of good physical fitness. It’s cultivated through consistent, repetitive physical activity.

Physical Fitness Effect on Death Rates

Regular physical activity postpones death.

Higher levels of physical fitness are linked to lower rates of death primarily from cancer and cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attacks and stroke). What’s more, moving from a lower to a higher level of fitness also prolongs life, even for people over 60.

Part 2 of this series will cover all the other health benefits of exercise. Part 3 will outline specific exercise recommendations, such as the type and duration of activity.

Steve Parker, M.D.


Filed under Exercise

13 responses to “Exercise, Part 1: Exercise Postpones Death

  1. Trish

    An excellent article Steve! I’m looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

  2. Gee, thanks, Trish. I’ve got 11 articles in the series, to be unleashed over the next couple months.

  3. While not doing much for weight loss, it does appear to be of value in preventing weight gain. Oh, and that whole death thing is kinda important, too.

    • I’m still trying to figure out how to motivate 35- and 40-year-olds to exercise regularly in order to live an extra two or three years. And those end-of-life years are usually higher-quality compared to those who don’t exercise. For example, pain-free performance of activities of daily living is much better (more about this in “Exercise, Part 2”). Even still, many decide that “if I have to exercise four hours a week just to live a couple extra years, I’ll die earlier and spend my time doing something other than exercise.” The trick is to find enjoyable physical activity.

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