Can Exercise Help You Live Longer?

Can Exercise Help You Live Longer?

June 1, 2023

Spoiler alert! Yes.

Back in 2017, Time Magazine put out a special edition entitled, “The Science of Exercise”. A few very thoughtful authors contributed to this magazine, Dr Jordan D. Metzl and Mandy Oaklander. They did such a fantastic job at highlighting how and why exercise has not received as much attention as it should through the years and I frequently cite this magazine and its articles when trying to explain how important exercise is to my patients. Just know that the majority of what I will write about in this blog has come directly from the magazine.

You should go and read the whole thing on your own. But I thought I would summarize the main points for you being that you may or may not have access to this 2017 magazine.
A little history: Before doctors adopted a single-minded focus on treating and curing disease, their main goal was to keep people healthy. Even back in 400 B.C., doctors knew that diet and exercise were the way to do that. But in the 1900s, with the rise of modern surgery and nascent pharmaceuticals, medicine shifted its focus from the prevention of disease to its treatment.

“The incredible medicine of movement”- by Dr Jordan D. Metzl
This is something that I repeat over and over again to the people we help. Movement is medicine. “Exercise is a miracle drug.” The positive effects of exercise significantly outweigh the negative effects. Every dose is 100% effective, even the very small doses. It is the MOST powerful, readily available drug in the world and it’s free. Here are some things that exercise can do for you:

  • Reduce medical costs
  • Better sleep
  • More productive work
  • Better mood
  • Less of a risk of developing almost any chronic disease
  • Less depression
  • Better memory
  • Quicker learning
  • Extends life span by as much as 5 years (maybe more)

Here’s the science:

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and creates new blood vessels. Exercise also triggers the release of a chemical that can dull pain and lighten mood. Repeated weight bearing exercise contracts the muscles, making them grow and put pressure on the bones, increasing their density. Exercise revs up blood flow to the skin, delivering nutrients to the epidermis and helping wounds heal faster. The body is better able to burn fat for energy with exercise, instead of carbs, causing fat cells to shrink. Exercise may protect telomeres, the tiny caps on the ends of chromosomes. This appears to slow the aging process. Moving quickly makes the heart pump more blood to the body’s tissue, including the muscles. That extra oxygen helps muscles withstand fatigue.

As a physical therapist, a mother of two and a business owner, I can fully empathize with it being difficult to fit exercise into your life. But I will say that you will never regret prioritizing exercise. It does take some management of schedules and planning, as does cooking, etc. but it is completely worth it. I don’t think I could take on the load of life, work and kids without the energy that exercise gives me. Some days it means getting up earlier in order to be able to fit in a workout, a meditation and cooking breakfast and lunch for the kids. Some days, it’s just having a 20-pound dumbbell in my kitchen, right next to the stove so that I can do sets of squats in between frying eggs. Whatever it ends up looking like for you and your life, every little bit that you do counts! Do five minutes of stretching while your kids are brushing their teeth, do 10 push-ups while they are getting their shoes on or the baby is sleeping.

There are priority exercises. What I mean by that is, when we do an assessment on a new patient, we decide what their priority exercises are. Especially for moms, they will always ask me, “what can I do in 5 minutes?” or “what can I do in 15 minutes?” That is all the time they have. We make it work. We decide on the main priority exercises that if they just focused on these 5 or 6 things, they would have the most desired effect. Being in this industry for this long teaches you how to work with people in a realistic way. Not everyone can spend an hour at the gym every morning. And that is perfectly OK. You do not have to feel bad about that. You also may despise the gym, that is OK as well. We will always design a plan that works for you, your life and your family. BUT I do need you to understand how important you are to the family. If you go down, they all go down. Mom and dad and grandma and grampa… you all need to be in good shape to keep the collective ship afloat. Afterall, it does take a village.

So, we need to have an agreement that you will put forth a good effort to stay consistent.
Consistency is key. The single most important thing that you can do for your health is implement change slowly and consistently. We are not going to make great lofty, unrealistic goals for you. You need to implement one thing, then keep doing it. We will usually let you choose what you would like to start with, something achievable and appropriate. Then you do that one thing, and you keep doing it. I will emphasize that identifying which “one thing” is the right one thing, is very important to nail. Knowing where to start is hugely important to your success. There will always be a best starting point, something that if you get that right, makes everything else flow with ease. There is a Russian Proverb, “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” Your Physical Therapist is very adept at identifying what that starting point should be for you. That’s what we do, we design programs to help you achieve your goals and stay out of pain. We want you to maintain physical strength, stamina, and stability across a broad range of movements, while remaining free from pain and disability.

Once you’ve done what we’ve prescribed consistently for 2-3 weeks, we can add more. This piece is really important because I want you to succeed and if I give 20 exercises that take 90 minutes to complete, you may not be successful and you may even give up. We don’t want that. This is what is necessary to start to form the habit of exercise, if you don’t already have that habit. In the words of James Clear, “the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our habits”. In his book, Atomic Habits J Clear outlines how to really develop any habit. Obviously, he talks a lot about exercise being that it is one that most people want to develop but struggle with doing so. His advice is to make the habit “obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying”. “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” So, we are going to work on how to form the habit of exercising, because we know that is in the best interest of your longevity and living a fulfilling, quality life.

A quote from Dr Peter Attia’s book, “Exercise is by far the most potent longevity “drug”. No other intervention does nearly as much to prolong our lifespan and preserve our cognitive and physical function.” – Dr. Peter Attia, MD

My hope is that I’ve encouraged you to think about starting a consistent exercise program. Please don’t worry if you are in pain. Please don’t worry if you’ve not been able to exercise for some time. Please don’t worry if you aren’t sure you can fit it into your schedule. Please don’t worry if you aren’t sure what to do. These are things that we can help with. We will meet you where you are at and ensure that you are successful. The idea is that the body needs movement in order to continue to thrive for years to come. Movement can come in many forms. As Specialist Physical Therapist’s we frequently help people get out of pain and become more active. I will urge you to start moving if you can, if you can’t because of pain or something else, give us a call for a free consultation on how we can help you get moving!


– Dr. Shaden Ghattas, PT

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