March 11th, 2009
01:27 PM ET

There's more to exercise

By Leslie Wade
CNN Medical Producer

I don't think I ever walked much as a kid. I mostly ran. I was a tomboy with an older brother and running and playing outdoors was my MO. So why am I finding it so hard to exercise now that I'm over 50? Maybe it's because an ankle injury has limited me to walking. We all know that exercise is the key to living a longer healthier life. Why don't these words propel us out of bed each morning reaching for the running shoes? It helps me to know WHY something is so before I do it, and exercise is no exception. Let me take you through a rudimentary physiology lesson. I promise I won't get too nerdy.

Sticky and yucky, no thanks – You probably know, there are 2 types of blood cholesterol, the good, called the HDLs, and the bad, the LDLs. If the bad-guy LDLs hang around in your bloodstream too long they help form gunk in your arteries called plaques. If a piece of plaque breaks off, this can lead to a heart attack or stroke. This is where exercise can help. When you work up a sweat your body goes into garbage-removal mode and actually carries some of the bad cholesterol out before it has a chance to wreak havoc.

Better snugglin' with your honey – OK, so most of us would like to keep having sex as the years go by. And one of the best ways to ensure that your love life stays in synch is to get your blood moving through exercise. Experts say regular cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, running, or other aerobic fitness of your choosing – three to five days a week for about 30 minutes - should do the trick. As we become fit, the heart muscle becomes more efficient at pumping blood throughout the body, and our blood vessels, which have a tendency to get stiff and brittle from lack of exercise, become more flexible. Exercise also helps keep those pesky LDLs from forming plaques, aiding blood flow. And better circulation means less chance of impotence or erectile dysfunction. But men aren't the only ones whose sex drive can suffer from lousy blood flow. Ladies, if the blood isn't getting to where it needs to go, well, you get the picture.

Better thinkin' noggin – Working up a sweat is one of the best ways to stay mentally sharp as we age. Brain cells called neurons need a lot of support to ensure that we continue to think clearly and remember things. And when you increase your heart rate through physical activity, more blood gets to the brain, bringing with it valuable brain food called glucose and oxygen. Studies in animals have also found that exercise stimulates the release of proteins (called nerve growth factors) that act like fertilizer keeping neurons healthy. Scientists are beginning to think this may be the case in humans as well. And another bit of good news, aerobic exercise two or three times a week cuts your chances of getting dementia later in life in half.

The other night when I was walking on the raised track at the local YMCA, I was ready to say the heck with it and head home. I was tired from a long week at work, not sleeping well because of my husband's cold and just plain bushed from worrying about the economy. But I kept going. I looked down at the basketball court under the track and watched as about a dozen 5-year-olds struggled to heave basketballs up toward the net. They shoved, grunted, stumbled and giggled, which got me laughing and thinking. Though those little guys were moving differently, they were running and chasing rebounds. I was simply putting one tired foot in front of the other. Yet we shared something very important. We were doing something good for our minds and bodies and, with luck, making our lives a little better.

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soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Melinda

    It is difficult to get motivated to exercise in a city designed for cars with no place safe, enjoyable, interesting or close to walk to. In Europe everyone walks a lot because the cities are designed for walking.

    March 12, 2009 at 04:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Alex Lickerman

    In my own medical practice, I've found people break down into two types: those who can't NOT exercise and those who can't seem to start an exercise program no matter how hard they try. The best advice I've given that seems to have the most success is the simplest: people in the former category need to connect themselves to people in the latter. Make regular plans to work out with people who already have been bitten by the work out bug! Or better yet, spend the money on a personal trainer. Use whatever psychological incentives you find work to induce yourself to exercise regularly!

    Alex Lickerman, M.D.

    March 12, 2009 at 10:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. GF, Los Angeles

    @ Melinda that's what the gym is for. There's no excuse not to exercise. I pay less than a dollar a day for a membership and have full access to cardio and weight equipment along with group exercise classes.

    March 13, 2009 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Denise Brandt

    A person has to just keep trying, don't give up. I have been at it for 6 years and finely now that I joined a gym full time and found a trainer that I enjoy have I gotten the work out bug. I now go daily for 1.5 hours 6 days a week. Spinning is great exercise, I'm 50 and hated to bike but found out I love to do Spinning. Try it!

    March 16, 2009 at 00:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Clarizza

    Very nice article and tsraight to the point. I don't know if this is actually the best place to ask but do you folks have any thoughts on where to employ some professional writers? Thanks in advance

    March 6, 2012 at 00:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Janessa Harriott

    go to my blog


    August 3, 2016 at 16:19 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.