As a youngster I was an exercise nut. My passion was hockey, but I played any sport and represented my school and other organisations in athletics and cricket too. I was one of those small kids that could never, ever sit still.
This passion for sport and exercise led later to sports writing (5 books on hockey, and columnist for The Australian for 24 years on hockey); then to my ministry founding the sports chaplaincy ministry 1982, including being chaplain for the Australian Cricket Team for 17 years and the Olympic Chapel since 1984. Since 1992 I have provided respite to Australian Institute of Sport elite athletes.
But as an older gentleman, I am much more sedentary than my younger self. The advice from my medical practitioners was to start a more gentle exercise regime to improve my health. My wife Delma walks every morning for 30 minutes while my exercising is focused toward a goal. Recently my son and I walked along the Coolangatta boardwalk to Snappers Rock to do a short video shoot of the waves and as I was focused I was walking briskly, he could hardly keep up. Just going for a walk is not my scene.
Different people, different muscles, different roles, different abilities
Some of us are genetically determined to be slower "endurance" exercisers, and others more like "sprinters". Each of us has a unique mix of "fast twitch" muscles which are sublimely suited to aerobic conditions, and "slow twitch" muscles which work best under sustained, anaerobic exercise. Training helps at any level of ability, because muscles that we use a lot will get stronger than those we don't use.
Recently, I was surprised that my 31 year old soccer-playing son could not keep up with me on a brisk walk as detailed above! It reminded me of Shane Warne who was what is commonly referred to a 'cricket fit' but not necessarily able to run a 4 min mile. Many athletes are like this, such as professional golfers.
Exercise has benefits for all ages (not just for "fitness")
Casual observations, studies in sociology and research in physiology all indicate that humans are meant to move, and many research studies confirm that exercise is beneficial for overall health and recovery from illness or medical treatment. Laziness is also condemned in Scripture: "The soul of the lazy man desires and has nothing; but the soul of the diligent shall be made rich." (Proverbs chapter 13 verse 4.)
On a recent ABC radio program "Life Matters", former athlete and truckie Shipiwe Baleka (USA) and researcher Dr Nick Gilson (Qld, Australia) advocated several minutes of vigorous exercise each day for truckies, to re-set their metabolism. The drivers who "just got out of the truck and moved" (with only slight changes to their nutrition) saw an amazing improvement in their general health and wellbeing.
Even elderly people who have chronic illnesses, who "just get up and move" by maintaining a clean house, are healthier and more satisfied than those who don't bother.
Another Australian survey indicates that reasonably vigorous exercise can help us to live longer, no matter if we are unfit, overweight or have other adverse health indicators; even if we are "getting on in years". The exercise was more important than any other factor. (simplified version).
This advice has been gaining momentum since the 1950s (referred to in one of the articles above). When I was a kid, a family friend who had a heart attack was one of the first to be prescribed exercise, rather than maintaining a restful life. He recovered well enough to return to work –a previously unheard of situation.
Similarly, "bed rest" is no longer advocated for those with back injuries or patients undergoing cancer therapy. I personally know people who maintain a supervised, exercise program, which has enabled them to get back to their normal activity level. Other medical researchers "recommend encouraging lung transplant patients to go back to work as long as there is no medical reason for not doing so." These transplant patients took no more time off for illness than other workers.
There are many scientific reasons for the observed health benefits of exercise. Stronger muscles will hold your bones, ligaments and general body structure in better shape, and allow you to move around more confidently. But there is more ... exercise improves the blood circulation, which helps deliver oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body.
And there is even more ... exercise actually stimulates the muscles to produce a wide range of beneficial hormones and cofactors that have been shown (among other things) to: alter the insulin sensitivity of diabetics; improve heart function (whether you have heart problems or not); aid the recovery from depression (or even prevent depression); help relieve the fatigue induced by illness or medical procedures (such as cancer therapy); and/or generally just make you feel good (such as the "runner's high").
There is still more... if you ever wondered about the truth of the urban myths that women are attracted to sportsmen, or fit-looking men in uniform, then this may give you the answer.
... and there is yet more .... exercise also improves your brain function
Proverbs chapter 4 verse 5 states: "A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might." Recent research indicates that it goes both ways – strengthening your body can increase your wisdom.
People who undertook short bouts of intense exercise performed 20% faster on learning new vocabulary than a control group. Regular exercise has also shown to improve concentration in kids with ADHD, reduce the likelihood of developing dementia, and improve memory in adults (and other things).
Complementing these observational studies, detailed physiological investigations show that exercise increases the actual brain volume in important areas – both in the grey matter and in the interconnecting tissue (sometimes called the white matter).
In the biochemical research, it is known the amount of a hormone called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) increases with exercise. The means that it encourages neurons (nerve cells) to proliferate; the name indicates that scientists know what it is, but do not (yet) understand the details of how it acts.
They do know that after BDNF gets through the blood-brain barrier, it binds to the connections between brain cells and alters their voltage, thus improving signal strength and stimulating more and different biochemical reactions right inside the cells. (For a longer, more technical explanation).
Be careful, start slowly – and first seek medical advice
The studies I have read indicate that exercise is "all good" as long as our exercise regime is suited to our own situation. We need to increase our activity level slowly, seeking professional advice from a medical practitioner, an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist. We should also ask them to monitor our health indicators as we progress, particularly if we want to try bouts of intense or strenuous exercise.
I continue to enjoy my own regular walks in the hope that I will retain my youthful bounce and mental acuity. In this, I aim to emulate the elderly citizens of the EU who are reported to be "actively ageing" within their communities.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html