Physical activity to improve health and fitness is a natural and effective way to make us feel better.
As such, sports play an essential role in many people's lives. Sport today is no longer just a leisure affair but is related to many other societal aspects.
This increasing focus on a more physically active lifestyle manifests itself in several ways:
Physical activity and sports as part of our American society
Sport and physical activity are a part of our society and not just a niche subset.
Developments in our American society significantly impact how we, as Americans, can or want to play sports.
In other words, this means that the evolutions in our society have significance for sport.
Indeed, sports and physical activity are embedded in the norms, values, and customs that prevail in our communities.
Much attention is paid to values and norms in various sectors of our society.
And sports and physical activity does not escape this increased interest and critical appraisal.
Physical activity to improve health and fitness: Introduction
As early as ancient Greece, an exercise-poor (sedentary) lifestyle was associated with various health problems.
For example, Hippocrates wrote that an inactive body grows slowly, is more prone to disease, and promotes the aging process.
However, it wasn't until the mid-twentieth century that the relationship between physical activity/inactivity on the one hand, and fitness and health on the other hand was studied scientifically and on a large scale.
It is not uncommon for all kinds of agencies to denounce the lack of physical activity in our society and link it to health problems.
Sport is encouraged in this context. Thus, it seeks to help prevent health problems associated with a lack of physical activity.
Some key terms and their meanings
Before delving deeper into the relationship between physical activity and sport on the one hand and health on the other, it is important to define some of the concepts involved.
Physical activity is a movement (dynamic) and/or posture (static) produced by skeletal muscles that is accompanied by an increase in energy consumption.
Being physically active is a form of behavior expressed in different circumstances and various forms, regardless of whether its purpose is to affect fitness and/or health.
A distinction is often made between different types of physical activity.
Thus, we distinguish physical activity performed in working conditions and physical activity performed in leisure conditions, such as:
Physical activity, therefore, is a much broader concept than pure sports activity per se.
Sports and sports activity
The concept of sports activity underwent a critical evolution in the second half of the twentieth century.
Sports activity was primarily a form of physical activity in which rules, losing and winning, rankings, and records were central.
Consequently, this term was mainly aimed at reasonably young people who could participate in competitive sports.
Today, however, the concept of sport has evolved into a form of physical activity in which relaxation and social contact are the supports.
This is in addition to competition and achievement, or often even replacing them.
This form of sports activity targets all sections of American society, making sports and games accessible for everyone!
So the concept of recreational sports was introduced.
Recreational sport is practiced subject to official rules, although not always in regulated competition. Instead, it is aimed primarily at relaxation and the opportunity for social contact with other people.
Various forms of recreational sports are thus increasingly diverging from the more traditional forms of sport.
Some examples of such recreational sports include the following:
The organization of such sports activities is not necessarily done by classic sports organizations but often by commercial organizations specializing in various niches.
Read the following articles for some inspiration on adventure and vacation sports to relax, including:
Physical training is a well-defined form of physical activity that can be described as the regular performance of planned physical activities.
The goal of this physical training is to favorably affect physical fitness and/or health within a specified time period.
One of the most accessible forms of physical training for people who want to slowly build their fitness is walking.
Read more in-depth info and tips about hiking and its positive effects on the human body and mind in the following articles:
Two types of effects of physical activity
Physical training has 2 types of effects on fitness and health:
1. Acute effect
An effect that occurs for a short time immediately following a one-time physical activity.
This is, for example, the change in insulin sensitivity for several hours after a single exercise session.
2. Chronic effect
Also known as training effect.
This effect occurs only after several weeks of regularly performing certain forms of physical activity and with sufficient intensity.
This is, for example, the increase in muscle mass after a period of strength training and/or the change in heart volume after a period of endurance training.
However, these chronic effects disappear when the exercise program is discontinued.
Physical fitness means the degree to which specific essential physical characteristics are present in an individual.
The main basic physical properties are as follows:
The extent to which these essential traits are present depends on gender, genetic factors, physique, age, and training status, among other factors.
General fitness refers to all these basic physical attributes that allow us to perform daily tasks properly.
And this is without excessive fatigue so that our leisure time can still be meaningfully filled.
Performance-related fitness is the presence of essential physical characteristics that enable the performance of a well-defined task at a given time.
This form of fitness is addressed especially in competitive sports.
An athlete needs to be able to run faster than others, jump higher/farther than others, lift a heavier weight, or wish to reach a certain level...
This is the presence of essential physical characteristics that can be influenced by physical activity and are associated with a risk of health problems.
These include the following:
Effects of physical activity to improve health and fitness
Physical activity can reduce mortality rates
Many researchers studied the relationship between physical activity and/or fitness on the one hand and overall mortality rates on the other.
In such studies, individuals are classified according to the degree of physical activity and/or degree of fitness (usually cardiovascular fitness) into 2 or more groups.
Mortality rates are then compared between the groups after several years.
This excludes deaths due to accidents.
The ratio of mortality rates determines relative risk and indicates the extent to which the probability of death differs in one group versus another.
The results of such studies, usually conducted in North America or northern Europe and in middle-aged men, are pretty similar.
Conclusion: Mortality rates are significantly lower in the physically active and/or fit groups.
This difference remains when the influence of other risk factors, such as age, dietary habits, smoking habits, high blood pressure, etc., are equalized in the studied groups.
Thus, these studies suggest that the risk of death within a given period is lower in physically active or fit adults compared with physically inactive or unfit individuals of the same age.
The probability of death within a given period in the least active or least fit group was 1.5 to 2 times greater, depending on the study, compared with the most active or most fit group.
Importantly, research has shown that changing the degree of physical activity or fitness is associated with a change in mortality risk.
Numerous epidemiological studies show an association between mortality rates from cardiovascular disease and the degree of physical activity and/or (cardiovascular) fitness.
When the influence of other known risk factors was equated, mortality rates due to cardiovascular disease remained significantly higher among the physically inactive or unfit individuals.
The relative risk of a sedentary lifestyle (1.5 to 3 times greater depending on the study) appears to be at least as great compared to other commonly cited risk factors such as excessive blood cholesterol, smoking, and high blood pressure.
Fighting a sedentary lifestyle should be a priority
Therefore, these results suggest that physical inactivity or not being fit are risk factors for death from cardiovascular disease that are at least as important as the abovementioned risk factors.
However, the impact of a risk factor on public health is determined:
Several studies estimate the prevalence of hypercholesterolemia and hypertension at 15-20% of the adult population, while the prevalence of a sedentary lifestyle (completely physically inactive) is estimated to be around 30-35% of the adult US population.
It seems logical to conclude that combating physical inactivity should be a priority, given the following:
In the United States, it has been calculated through epidemiological studies that 34% of deaths from coronary heart disease could be associated with lack of physical activity and/or inadequate cardiovascular fitness.
(Based on 160,000 (= 34%) of the 480,000 deaths from coronary heart disease in 1992)
Therefore, increasing physical activity within American society could significantly improve these mortality rates.
In this context, be sure to read our articles on sedentary lifestyle, its consequences, and how to combat it:
Physical activity reduces risk of death from cancer
Much research has also been done regarding the influence of physical (in)activity and/or fitness and mortality rates from cancer.
Most studies find lower mortality rates from colorectal cancer in the physically active and/or fit groups.
In some studies, this also appears to be the case for women's mortality rates due to breast and some uterine cancers.
Thus, these studies suggest that physical activity/fitness reduces the risk of death from some cancers.
Since cardiovascular disease and cancer are the leading cause of death in adults in the Western world, it stands to reason that physical activity or fitness can benefit the overall mortality rate.
Physical activity reduces risk of cardiovascular disease
Several mortality studies suggest that physical activity and/or (cardiovascular) fitness are related to cardiovascular disease (supported by results from epidemiological studies).
It is mainly ischemic heart disease due to coronary atherosclerosis that appears to be closely associated with the degree of physical activity or cardiovascular fitness.
The atherosclerotic process is a chain of changes in the wall of large and medium-sized blood arteries, which can narrow the diameter or completely obstruct the blood vessel.
Atherosclerosis can give rise to oxygen deprivation (ischemia) of the heart muscle.
Read even more in-depth information about arteriosclerosis, cholesterol, and its dangers on the following pages:
In studies of excellent quality, the relative risk of ischemic heart disease due to coronary atherosclerosis in physically inactive or (cardiovascularly) unfit groups ranged between 1.3 and 2.5.
That is, physically inactive or cardiovascularly unfit individuals are 1.3 to 2.5 times more likely to have ischemic heart disease than physically active or cardiovascularly fit individuals.
People used to explain this connection by referring to the following indirect effects of physical activity:
However, there are sufficient arguments for believing that there is a direct effect of physical activity or cardiovascular fitness in addition to the indirect effects mentioned above.
Namely, in studies that equated the presence of other risk factors in the different groups studied, one still finds a less frequent occurrence of ischemic heart disease due to coronary atherosclerosis in the physically active and/or fitter groups.
The underlying mechanisms of this direct protective effect of physical activity or cardiovascular fitness are still unclear.
Possible explanations and factors are as follows:
Physical activity reduces the risk of some cancers
Epidemiological research regarding the relationship between physical activity/fitness and cancer confirms findings from mortality studies (see above).
Physical inactivity or being unfit increases the risk of some cancers.
It mainly involves colon cancer and some hormone-related cancers.
However, the underlying mechanism of this connection is still unclear. For example, accelerated bowel transit could explain the protective effect of physical activity on colon cancer.
Because an accelerated intestinal transit would shorten the contact time between the intestinal wall and potential carcinogens in the stool.
Hormonal mechanisms (reduced estrogen levels) could explain the reduced risk of breast and certain types of uterine cancer in physically active or fitter women, as found in some studies.
The protection may rely partly on an immune modulating effect of physical activity. However, further research is needed to better understand the possible protective effect of physical activity on cancer.
Read more information about how to prevent colon cancer (higher risk of it with insufficient exercise) on the following pages:
Physical activity reduces the risk of type II diabetes
Epidemiological studies have shown that there is also an inverse relationship between physical activity/fitness and type II diabetes (also called adult-onset diabetes or non-insulin-dependent diabetes).
The risk of this condition increases as one is physically inactive/less fit and is said to be up to about 20% higher than in physically active/fit individuals.
The protective effect of physical activity seems to be most pronounced in persons who are obese. Impaired insulin sensitivity is at the root of this condition.
A lot of studies have shown that physical activity increases insulin sensitivity. There are arguments for believing this increased insulin sensitivity is based on an acute effect.
In summary, several high-quality studies have demonstrated the importance of exercise and fitness in diabetes.
For example, regular exercise and sports improve blood glucose control and can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes.
This is in addition to positively affecting:
Physical activity reduces weight gain and obesity
Obesity (excessive body weight due to excess fat) is a risk factor for health problems such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
From a theoretical standpoint, obesity results from an imbalance between energy intake (too much) and energy consumption (too little), resulting in an energy surplus that accumulates in the form of body fat.
It is mainly in the last 60 years that the frequency of obesity has increased in Western society. This increase is presumably related to a changed lifestyle and much less to genetic factors.
A span of 60 years is too short to attribute this sharp increase to changes in "genetic" structures.
Lifestyle habits associated with obesity are improper eating habits (relatively high calorie intake and excessive fat) and insufficient physical activity (relatively low calorie burn).
Research shows that obese children and adults do less or as much (but never more) physical activity than non-obese individuals.
When cross-sectional or retrospective control studies find an association between obesity and physical activity levels, the cause-effect relationship is not always apparent...
Is one obese because one is less physically active? Or is one less physically active because one is obese? Or is there a third common factor?
In treating obesity and limiting energy intake, boosting physical activity can play a valuable role.
Combination therapy of reduced energy intake with increased energy consumption appears to give the best long-term results.
Research suggests that physical activity primarily reduces fat mass in the trunk and abdomen.
This is positive given that fat mass around the trunk and abdomen level is particularly a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
This could partly explain why men lose more weight thanks to physical activity. Namely, men have a higher proportion of abdominal (trunk and abdomen) fat than women.
Interesting fact: Even with a relaxing activity such as swinging, you can prevent or fight obesity.
This is definitely the case for children. Read more detailed information about it on the following pages:
Physical activity reduces hypertension
Hypertension is a significant health problem.
Elevated blood pressure is associated with increased heart, vascular, and kidney disease risk.
Some epidemiological studies have shown an inverse relationship between the level of physical activity and resting blood pressure.
On average, physically active/fit individuals have a lower blood pressure than non-physically active/unfit individuals, suggesting a protective effect of physical activity.
Intervention studies show that regular physical activity in people with elevated blood pressure induces a clinically relevant decrease in blood pressure.