Today, scientists are hard at work trying to find the latest miracle drug. Our culture has put its faith in science, to the point where we do not worry about getting sick. We are persuaded that whatever we come down with, medical science will ride to the rescue.
Yet, The Economist explains this week, there is something out there already that comes very close to being a panacea. It is… exercise.
The Economist says: “One sure giveaway of quack medicine is the claim that a product can treat any ailment. There are, sadly, no panaceas. But some things come close, and exercise is one of them. As doctors never tire of reminding people, exercise protects against a host of illnesses, from heart attacks and dementia to diabetes and infection.”
Of course, this might tell us why more people don’t exercise. Having heard about the benefits of exercise, they might have concluded that they are too grandiose to be credible.
Besides, if exercise costs so little, how can it be so good for you?
Strictly speaking, exercise does not cure as much as it prevents you from falling ill. But that has certain disadvantages. The healthier you are the lesser your role in the great medical drama that is unfolding around us every day.
People like to see their lives become part of a great story, and exercise will make that less likely. Some people, I would imagine, think that their life only has meaning if it becomes part of a story… like the story of an intrepid physician fighting your horrific disease.
Exercise poses another problem. It is not enough to believe in it; you have to do it. .
Most medical treatments require little more than your passive acceptance.
None of this is news. Nowadays, all physicians worthy of their degrees counsel their patients to add an exercise regimen to their daily routines.
At a time when the nation is drowning in health care expenditures good citizens should be working to solve the problem, by working out.
Until recently, however, we have not really known why exercise confers so many benefits on us.
Recent research has found the answer in the concept of autophagy.
The concept comes to us from cell biology, so I will not even try to summarize it.
The Economist explains autophagy: “This process, whose name is derived from the Greek for ‘self-eating’, is a mechanism by which surplus, worn-out or malformed proteins and other cellular components are broken up for scrap and recycled.”
It continues: “Autophagy is an ancient mechanism, shared by all eukaryotic organisms (those which, unlike bacteria, keep their DNA in a membrane-bound nucleus within their cells). It probably arose as an adaptation to scarcity of nutrients. Critters that can recycle parts of themselves for fuel are better able to cope with lean times than those that cannot. But over the past couple of decades, autophagy has also been shown to be involved in things as diverse as fighting bacterial infections and slowing the onset of neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases.”
Hopefully, this research will chip away at the indolence and sloth that is preventing people from exercising.