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Does exercise reduce inflammation? Here’s what a preventive medicine doc says

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceApril 21, 2020

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Anyone who’s serious about preventing chronic inflammation (aka a sustained inflammatory response in the body that’s linked to many chronic diseases) probably already gets their fill of turmeric, ginger, and antioxidant-rich berries in their diets. While it’s true that what you eat plays a major role in combatting the effects of inflammation, according to preventive medicine doctor Kenneth Cooper, MD, MPH, food is only part of the solution.

“Chronic inflammation is a common topic now, but it has not always been a popular subject in medicine,” Dr. Cooper says. Studying preventive medicine, however, he saw very early in his career how inflammation was connected to long-term health. Studying the relationship between the two has been his primary focus for 50 years.

His biggest tip on how to prevent inflammation: exercise. “Exercising for 20 to 30 minutes a few times a week is one of the best ways to prevent dementia and other forms of chronic inflammation,” he says. In fact, a small 2017 study found that just 20 minutes of walking on a treadmill triggered an anti-inflammatory response in the body’s cells, which suppressed the production of cytokines (the compounds that activate inflammation). Dr. Cooper says exercise has another crucial benefit, too: helping prevent and reverse obesity, which is linked to a wide range of inflammatory health problems, including diabetes and poor cardiovascular health.

“Another reason exercise is important for preventing inflammation is because it’s linked to reducing stress, and can play a part in managing depression,” Dr. Cooper says—two conditions that are associated with inflammation. It should then come as no surprise that the Blue Zones “Power 9″—healthy habits that the longest-living people around the globe share—aren’t just focused on food; getting regular movement, managing stress, and maintaining social connections are also critical parts of healthy aging (and thus, reducing inflammation).

Seeing so many links between exercise and preventing inflammation inspired him to open a fitness center focusing on aerobic activity. Dr. Cooper himself proves to be a living testament, too: At 89 years old, he’s in great health, which he credits to practicing what he preaches.

But don’t take this as a sign that you have to start doing all HIIT, all the time in order to cut down on inflammation. Dr. Cooper says light aerobic activity, like walking, is enough to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits of exercise. Other forms of low-intensity cardio include biking, slow runs, and even hiking.

The big takeaway that Dr. Cooper wants people to keep in mind in terms of preventing and combatting inflammation is this: what you eat most certainly plays a role, but preventive health is no one-man show. Exercise also plays a starring part, and that doesn’t mean waking up two hours early before work to sweat until your clothes are damp; it’s a lot more attainable than you may think.

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