Even minimal physical activity can be great for your health

To stimulate your natural defenses and boost your health, you don't necessarily have to start jogging. Even your normal, everyday physical activity can make a big difference.

Everyone knows now that physical exercise can activate the body's natural defense mechanisms against illness -- whether it be infection, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stress, depression or cancer. But most people remain intimidated by the idea of “going to the gym,” or “taking up sports.” Many feel that they're not athletic, and that sports are simply not for them.

Dr.Jeremy N. Morris died this November, at the marvelous age of 99 and a half (his daughter insists that the "half" meant a lot to him). He was the first person to demonstrate -- as long ago as 1953 -- that it's not so much athletic activity that benefit health, but simply the level of physical activity -- even when it's just part of everyday life. [1]

In his first study, Dr. Morris compared the health of London bus-conductors who worked on  "flat" buses with those who worked on double-deckers -- those two-storey red buses that have become an icon of the city of London. These conductors all lived in comparable circumstances, and they had similar family backgrounds and dietary habits (including cigarette and alcohol consumption). Yet, almost without noticing it, the conductors who worked on double-deckers were walking up and down 600 steps a day to check their passengers' tickets. And during a five-year observation period, they had half as many heart attacks as their colleagues!

Later Morris demonstrated similar results among postal workers. Although they were all comparable initially, those who delivered mail on foot or by bike -- rather than working behind a desk at the neighborhood post-office -- were also, to a considerable extent, protected against heart disease.

This past week a new study of prostate cancer has been published in the Journal of Urology. [2] Researchers and oncologists at Duke University confirmed again that a moderate quantity of physical activity can reduce the risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer -- by more than 85%. The activity involved varied: one hour of walking per week, at normal walking speed (truly a minimum, you'll agree), or 60 minutes of jogging spread out through the week, or the equivalent of a total one hour a week spent walking up stairs. (Morris would probably have found the same benefit in terms of prostate cancer among his London bus-conductors if he'd looked for that at the time).

Even housework counts. In a study of cleaning women working in Boston hotels, researchers found that the simple realization that their work -- cleaning bathtubs or changing bed-linen -- qualified as physical exercise significantly improved their health after a few months (weight loss, reduction of body fat and blood pressure). [3]

Why shouldn't we all become London bus-conductors? All of us can find a way to walk up a few stairs every day, or to walk part of the way to work (or to a meeting with friends), or to bicycle to the neighborhood supermarket. It's seems simple, and yet it's also a big step towards much better health.

1.    Hevesi, D., Jeremy Morris, Who Proved Exercise Is Heart-Healthy, Dies at 99½ in The New York Times. 2009: New York, USA.
2.    Antonelli, J.A., et al., Exercise and Prostate Cancer Risk in a Cohort of Veterans Undergoing Prostate Needle Biopsy. Journal of Urology, 2009. 182(5): p. 2226-2231.
3.    Crum, A.J. and E.J. Langer, Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect. Psychological Science, 2007. 18: p. 165-171.
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