From working out to eating right, knowing how to best live a healthy lifestyle can become confusing. The long-term health landscape continues to change as research into integrative medicine and genomic function evolves. Even as Americans strive to live healthier and achieve greater fitness, there is much that is still unknown about how our bodies benefit from a lifestyle of physical fitness.
But exercise remains a critical element to long-term health, allowing us to alter our physical fitness levels, says nursing researcher David A. Boley II, MS, ANP-BC. "Exercise is a specific type of activity that is done for the express purpose of improving our functional abilities and reducing limitations. It's how we how we maximize our potential for a healthy life," says Boley.
Boley, a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing who will be working this fall as an Intramural Research Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, became interested in exercise training for health-related fitness after his father suffered a heart attack at the age of 54. Boley later became a personal trainer and now, as an Advanced Practice Nurse, is focusing his research on the role of exercise in long-term health maintenance and improvement.
To Boley, America's obsession with weight loss often overlooks the important role of muscles, specifically building and conditioning the lean skeletal muscles that support movement and boost metabolism. Muscle strengthening and maintaining both the quantity and quality of muscle fibers is a critical piece of long-term health, and that can only be achieved through regular, intentional exercise. With that in mind, Boley has a couple of principles that he recommends when incorporating exercise.
First, there are countless types of exercise a person can do. "Numerous scientific studies demonstrate that the benefits of exercise can be achieved through a lot of different activities," Boley says. From bodybuilding to Pilates to simple calisthenics, exercise can vary widely, and some forms might be more appropriate than others for certain individuals. Further, any type of exercise can be adapted to account for limitations such as age or physical disability.
Second, exercise for long-term health should focus on muscle strengthening. "Whatever it is, it should have some components that challenge the strength of the muscles in your body," Boley says. "Bodies are made to move, and muscles are responsible for moving the joints that make that happen." Where running, biking and other cardiovascular exercises benefit the circulatory system, it's important to also workout with weights or resistance, Boley says. We have a tendency to focus too much on aerobic exercise, he notes, adding that evidence shows that resistance exercises alter the cellular structure of muscle in a way that aerobic exercise doesn't. In his research, Boley hopes to improve scientific understanding of how those changes improve the symptoms of common, chronic diseases.
Finally, exercise requires an element of regularity. Although more research is needed into the relative benefits of longer versus shorter bouts of exercise, exercise should be performed at regular intervals to maintain muscle quality. Once a regular routine of strength-training exercise has been established, the regimen can be adapted and altered as a person's fitness level improves. "Fitness requires constant revision," Boley notes. "As you become more fit, you can maintain that level, or you can make adjustments to reach a higher level or fitness. The very fist step, though, is to establish the habit of doing one thing on a regular basis."