By Kim Jackson
Let’s look at the role which physical activity plays in reducing the risk of developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and in the management of these long-term conditions. NCDs cannot be passed on through contact and account for 71 per cent of deaths worldwide but they are to some extent preventable or at least manageable, through behaviour modification. Physical activity is just one type of behaviour modification that can have a positive impact with respect to the four major NCDs – cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, respiratory conditions and cancer.
CVD describes conditions that affect the heart and the blood vessels with heart disease and stroke being the most common. Exercise has been shown to have a positive effect at lowering blood pressure and stress levels both of which are risk factors for CVD. The effects on blood pressure can be present for up to 10 hours and regular exercise can have positive long-term effects. Physical activity is also very important in improving quality of life after a heart attack or stroke where a supervised planned programme can gradually increase fitness and reduce the risk factors associated with a sedentary life.
Diabetes is a condition where the body cannot produce enough insulin to regulate glucose levels, resulting in high and low sugar levels. There are two types of diabetes:
Type 1 – The cells that produce insulin are destroyed and injections of insulin are required to prevent high levels of sugar in the blood
Type 2– The body is unable to produce enough insulin or becomes resistant to the insulin produced. It is the most common form of diabetes and in the first stages can be controlled by diet and exercise but over time insulin or medication may be needed.
There is evidence that there is a correlation between obesity and diabetes and exercise can help not only control weight but can have a positive effect on insulin sensitivity. During exercise, muscles use glucose for energy, reducing the sugar levels in the blood. However, to get these positive benefits from exercise you will need to engage in 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week, with each session lasting at least 10 minutes. So, if you work out three times a week, that will be 25 minutes of vigorous exercise on each of those days.
Respiratory conditions are those such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and bronchitis. While it is hard to think about physical activity when you are already struggling for breath, exercise can help improve cardiorespiratory fitness which can improve the efficiency of oxygen exchange within the body.
The fear of breathlessness can lead to a sedentary lifestyle which has a negative effect on the heart, lungs and muscles and can lead to obesity – all of which can create a vicious cycle of events. Including physical activity to your daily routine can help control weight, improve cardiovascular fitness and strength, all of which can increase the efficiency of the muscles and lungs.
Cancer affects young and old and can develop anywhere in the body. In a healthy environment, cells normally grow old or become damaged and die and are then replaced by new cells. When cancer is present, this process is disrupted, and cells start to divide and reproduce uncontrollably, forming a mass known as a tumour. Not all tumours cause problems. Benign tumours do not spread or affect tissues but malignant tumours on the other hand can spread, invade and destroy healthy tissues. There are over 200 types of cancer, some of them are life-threatening but there are treatments available that can prolong a person’s life and, in some cases, eradicate the disease altogether. Recently, research has shown that physical activity can reduce the risk of developing breast, colon and endometrial cancer by between 25-50 per cent. For cancer prevention, it is recommended that you take part in moderate exercise for about 4-5 hours a week. It is thought that the benefits are due to insulin resistance, regulation of hormone levels and an improved immune system.
Physical activity is also recommended for people who already have cancer and undergoing treatment as it can improve mood, reduce fatigue, boost the immune system and help to build strong bones and muscles.
So, physical activity, if carefully planned, can have a positive impact on day to day living. It is important to note, however, that if you have any of the above conditions and want to include physical activity in your life, you should consult with your healthcare provider prior to starting an exercise programme.
If you do not know where to start, you can talk to a physiotherapist who is trained in human movement, anatomy and physiology and can show you ways to gradually increase the intensity of your workout, helping you live a longer, healthier and more active life.
(Kim Jackson is a United Kingdom-trained physiotherapist who specializes in musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction, including back pain and sciatica, stroke and other neuro conditions as well as sports physiotherapy. She works at Bayside Therapy Services in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia.)