Are you physically fit? The answer may determine whether you will develop mental health disorders, beat obesity genes, live long healthy life, have children with better motor skills and high Intelligent Quotient (IQ).
A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders has demonstrated how physical fitness could prevent the onset of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Indeed, several studies have shown that common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, are a growing global issue. They reduce overall wellbeing and life satisfaction, but they may also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and increase mortality risk. Although talking therapies and medication can help in many instances, they do not help everyone.
Experts insist that an issue as substantial as mental health needs an effective public health strategy; stopping mental health issues before they begin would, of course, be ideal. Researchers are focused on unraveling the myriad of factors that increase the risk of developing mental health conditions. Although it is not possible to alter some of these factors, such as genetics, it is possible to modify some lifestyle factors, including diet and physical activity.
Scientists are keen to identify which modifiable factors might have the most significant impact on mental health. Some researchers are looking at physical fitness.
Also, new research published in the journal PLOS Genetics examined the effect of 18 different kinds of exercise on people with a high genetic risk of developing obesity. The findings identified six exercises that can offset the genetic effects on five measures of obesity.
Although obesity is the result of a complex interplay between lifestyle and genes, a person’s genetic predisposition to the condition does play a central role, and researchers are only just starting to understand the influence that genes have on excessive body weight.
For instance, a study that appeared earlier this year compared over 14,000 participants with low, normal, and high body mass index (BMI) measurements, only to conclude that the “genetic dice are loaded” against those with obesity.
Another recent study found that single-gene mutations are responsible for approximately 30 per cent of severe obesity cases in children, and older estimates suggested that as much as 81 per cent of a person’s weight could be heritable.
However, new research brings much-needed hope. Wan-Yu Lin of the National Taiwan University in Taipei City recently led a study reviewing the types of physical exercise that are particularly effective in offsetting the genetic predisposition to obesity.
Also, a new study suggests that exercising during pregnancy is not just good for the mother – it may give her baby a leg-up in heart strength and coordination. New research from the University of East Carolina suggests that women who spend 50 minutes taking a brisk walk, jogging, doing aerobics or doing spin will have babies with better motor skills earlier on.
The benefits were particularly pronounced for baby girls, who were right on par with their male counterparts, rather than lagging slightly behind, as expected. Although the differences in their development were subtle in the first month of the babies’ lives, the researchers suspect that this small early advantage may blossom into greater benefits as the children grow and develop.
As their bodies change, many pregnant women may be worried injuring or disturbing a developing fetus. But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reassures women that exercising is not just safe but good for them.
The association says that women can continue doing regular moderate exercises, with some slight adjustments to accommodate their growing bellies and other anatomical changes. Physical activity can help reduce unpleasant symptoms of pregnancy, like backaches and constipation and swelling and counteract low mood or energy.
Perhaps most importantly, exercise lowers the risk of and may even prevent gestational diabetes – a pregnancy-specific form of the condition that affects the way a woman’s body processes sugar. Past research has suggested some possible upsides for mothers and babies alike.
Meanwhile, the authors of the Journal of Affective Disorders study investigated whether cardiorespiratory fitness might be an effective intervention. Cardiorespiratory fitness is a measure of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems’ capacity to supply oxygen to the body during exercise.
The authors explained how previous studies “have found that low physical activity is associated with a greater incidence of common mental health disorders.” However, few studies have investigated whether cardiorespiratory fitness is directly related to mental health risk.
To investigate, the researchers hunted down studies that looked at how fitness interacts with mental health risk. They only included papers that used a prospective study design. This means that at the beginning of the studies, none of the participants had mental health conditions, and researchers observed them for a time to see if any mental health issues arose.
All experiments assessed cardiorespiratory fitness and either depression or anxiety. In total, the researchers only identified seven studies to include in their qualitative synthesis and four that they could enter into their meta-analysis.
Their analyses of the four studies — which included 27,733,154 person-years of data — produced significant results. The authors wrote: “We found that low cardiorespiratory fitness and medium cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with a 47 per cent and 23 per cent greater risk of common mental health disorders, compared with high cardiorespiratory fitness.”
They also found evidence of a dose-dependent relationship between fitness and common mental health conditions. The authors explained: “Incremental increases in the cardiorespiratory fitness group were associated with proportional decreases in associated risk of new onset common mental health disorders.”
The study published in the journal PLOS Genetics examined data from 18,424 “unrelated Han Chinese adults” who were between 30 and 70 years of age and had participated in the Taiwan Biobank study.
Lin and colleagues looked at five obesity measurements: BMI, body fat percentage, waist circumference, hip circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio. The team also used internal weights from the Taiwan Biobank study to devise genetic risk scores for each of the five obesity measurements.
The Taiwan Biobank study also included self-reported data from the participants on the forms of exercise that they did on a regular basis. The researchers examined 18 such types of workout. An examination of the interactions between a person’s genetic risk score and their exercise routine revealed that jogging was the best workout for reducing obesity.
Specifically, regular jogging offset the genetic risk across three measures: BMI, body fat percentage, and hip circumference. “Across all five obesity measures, regular jogging consistently presented the most significant interactions with [genetic risk scores],” added the researchers.
Furthermore, “Mountain climbing, walking, exercise walking, international standard dancing, and a longer practice of yoga also attenuated the genetic effects on BMI,” reported the authors. By contrast, other popular activities, such as “cycling, stretching exercise, swimming, dance revolution, and qigong,” had no effect on the genetic predisposition to obesity.
The results also showed that weight training, badminton, table tennis, basketball, tennis, tai chi, and “other” exercise routines were ineffective in lessening a person’s predisposition to obesity. However, the team notes that there was limited data on some of these activities because they were less popular among the participants.
Lin and colleagues concluded: “Our findings show that the genetic effects on obesity measures can be decreased to various extents by performing different kinds of exercise. The benefits of regular physical exercise are more impactful in subjects who are more predisposed to obesity.”
Meanwhile, in her prior work, East Carolina researcher Dr. Linda May and her team found that babies whose mothers exercised while carrying them had stronger hearts and lower resting heartbeats. So, already, it was clear that spending foetal development in the womb of an active woman made a child more likely to have at least a fit heart.
Exercise also benefits a pregnant woman’s brain and coordination, so May and her team wondered if perhaps similar advantages would be conferred to the baby she carries, too. The East Carolina researchers recruited 71 healthy women between 18 and 35, each of whom were carrying one baby (as opposed to twins or other multiples).
Half of the women were placed on an exercise programme of their choice. They spent 45-50 minutes on a treadmill, an elliptical, a stationary bike or doing aerobics, three times a week. They kept up this routine from the time they were 16 weeks pregnant all the way through the 36th week of pregnancy. Meanwhile, the control group did only light stretching and breathing exercises with supervision, three times a week.
Happily, all 71 women gave birth to live, healthy babies, but in the weeks to come, differences started to emerge between the two groups. By the time the babies were one month old, they were still comparable sizes, but the babies of active moms were getting stronger, faster. In their check-ups, the doctors had babies clench their fists, move objects around, crawl, roll over and otherwise move around.
Babies whose mothers had exercised regularly during pregnancy had some significant advantages. They were generally in better control of their developing limbs and stronger to boot. Adrenaline helps send blood to the muscles, so this may be encouraging the development of strength in a baby.
Exercise also makes a woman’s body and bloodstream operate more optimally, so her developing baby may simply be getting a better flow of nutrients and hormones in general. Infant girls tend to develop motor skills a little more slowly than boys – but the daughters of exercising moms were rolling, gripping and crawling with the best of them.
These advantages might not seem terribly consequential at the one-month mark, but other studies suggest that early movement is predictive of athleticism and health not only later in child but also well into adulthood. Men and women who were active, motor-skilled toddlers tend to have lower risks of obesity and be more fit through age 31.
So a mother’s activity in pregnancy might give her baby health advantages she or he carries throughout their life.
Regular moderate exercise can help reduce the strain of pregnancy and may even prevent gestational diabetes. But make sure you talk to your doctor before starting a workout routine.
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