By Dr. Craig Fasullo
“I know I need to exercise more. It’s just so hard to find the time.”
I hear this in my office every day – and I totally get it. So many of us are overextended at work and overwhelmed at home. There’s always something or someone else to take care of, and so often the first things that fall away under times of higher stress are those that keep us feeling good in the first place – the activities of “self-care” – exercise, eating well, and generally making time for those things that bring joy and peace of mind to our individual lives. And so I find it well worth the time with many patients, who are coming in for a broad variety of health concerns, to brainstorm ways to get regular activity into their daily routine. Truly, I cannot stress enough the importance of moving your body. There is not a pill on earth that is as effective in combating such a wide range of negative health effects, while simultaneously promoting an equal diversity of positive benefits. It’s not quite a cure-all, but it’s pretty close.
“Inflammation” has become a buzzword in the health literature over the past number of years, and for good reason. So many of the chronic conditions that affect our culture – high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer – have a significant inflammatory component. This inflammation can express itself in both subtle and debilitating ways. Fortunately, there is an empowering message here – anything that reduces overall inflammation will reduce the risk and propensity for all of these conditions. In fact, much of the work we do as naturopathic doctors focuses on this particular avenue of treatment – we get the inflammation down! And as you can probably guess, one of the most powerful ways to lower inflammation is regular activity and exercise.
It’s worth noting that inflammation is not always a bad thing. The acute inflammatory response is a vital and beneficial component of the body’s defense system, keeping us healthy on a daily basis. If you slice your finger open while cutting vegetables, inflammatory proteins & immune cells move to that affected area to thicken the blood, allow it to clot, form a scab, and generally reduce the possibility of infection. A similar process occurs with blunt trauma, such as a sprained ankle. In that case, the swelling acts as a natural cast, while the body gets to work repairing the damaged tissue. Unfortunately, under the wrong conditions, these beneficial processes can work against us, as years of accumulated damage increases the level of chronic inflammation in the body.
So how does it all work? Research is still being done to fully determine the physiology behind exercise’s beneficial effects, but some things are clear. The human body is constantly producing a myriad of particular proteins called cytokines. These molecules are involved in dealing with infection, trauma, immune activity, and inflammation. There are some cytokines that are promoters of inflammation, while others are anti-inflammatory in nature. Often in cases of chronic disease, inflammatory cytokines are elevated, and some medications to treat these conditions actually work directly on reducing those levels. Fortunately, regular daily activity modulates cytokine activity in all the right ways. Anti-inflammatory molecules increase and pro-inflammatorymolecules decline. This has far reaching positive effects throughout the entire body, even as far as improving mood and reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Of course, in addition to regular exercise, there are many other ways to lower levels of chronic inflammation in the body. The kinds of foods we eat on a daily basis have a significant impact on cytokine production and inflammatory levels. In addition, there are genetic components, environmental factors, and many other potential causes to consider when addressing a complicated chronic disease process such as heart disease or high blood pressure. Consulting a physician is always the best approach, but certainly, getting a bit more movement into your life is going to get you progressing in the right direction.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that there is a lot of research being done regarding the effects of exercise on the immune system. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that it really helps! Exercise increases a number of different white blood cells that are necessary to fight off infection. It also decreases levels of particular stress hormones that can have a detrimental effect on immune function, though, it’s important to remember that moderation is usually best. Too much vigorous exercise can exhaust the body, making it more susceptible to infection.
For most folks, a good starting goal is at least thirty minutes of activity, at least five days per week. Keep in mind that exercise does not just have to mean going to the gym. There are plenty of other ways to incorporate that movement into your daily life. If you are starting from scratch, consider parking further away from the store, or always taking the stairs. Walking, cycling, racket sports, golf (walk the course!), yoga, or other movement and stretching classes are just the tip of the iceberg. The most important thing is to find the activity that makes you happy while doing it. That way while you are lowering inflammation and increasing immune function, you are also increasing your overall joy. It’s a win-win!
If you suffer from an inflammatory condition, have issues with immune function, or just want to stay well, consider consulting a naturopathic physician who can help you make the right choices about activity, diet, and other lifestyle factors that lead to a healthy life, as well as examine your individual need for other anti-inflammatory support. There are even inflammatory markers in the blood that can be tested to track your progress over time. Today is the perfect day to take a step forward toward a lifetime of feeling better!