Movement: The Hinge to Health? by Greg Dea

Greg Dea

Can exercise actually extend or even save your life? Or is your family’s short-term and long-term health already set in your genes?

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re an exerciser. It’s part of your life. You’ve bought in. You believe it’s good for you. You know that because you’re fitter, you will be healthier and you will live longer than those who don’t. Right?

Well, maybe not.

Like everything, we turn to science to tell us what has been found. We weigh it up, make a judgment and alter our course appropriately.

So, what can science inform us about whether being unfit can lead to our death? Actually—very little when we ask it like that. Within the top 20 leading causes of death in Australia, there are none that are directly related to poor fitness [1]. In fact, there’s only one that might relate to balance or strength. Accidentally falling kills nearly 3,000 Australians each year, but this sits at number 16 on the list as of 2018. It is up 50% on the 2013 figures and 100% on the 2009 figures.  In the United States of America, similarly, there are no causes of death in the top 10 that directly relate to poor fitness [2].

At this point, you’re probably thinking, I’m fit, so I won’t get any of the top 5, 10, 15, or even top 20 of those causes. Am I right? If you’re thinking that, you’ll be complacent about your mortality. So, what if I am, or you are unlucky enough to do so many things right and still acquire a top-five disease, can we still reduce symptoms and be around for our families longer? You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

The answer is yes, and perhaps no.

Let’s start with the yes part.

By moving well, and moving often, there’s no doubt that movement benefits the systems of the heart, brain and airways. Such benefits can extend your life. Think I’m simplifying it too much? Read on for the top five ways exercise can lower your risk of dying due to the top five causes.

  1. In Australia, over 13% of all deaths are related to heart disease, including blocked arteries of the heart. Apart from genes, cholesterol, smoking and obesity, having restricted trunk movement is linked to stiffer arteries [3]. Stiffer arteries are linked to disease of any blood vessel, including the heart. If you can’t lift your arms overhead without arching your back, or you can’t turn to look behind you, your trunk is too restricted and could be related to a stiffer set of arteries.
  2. The next leading causes of death in Australia are dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (number 5 in the USA). Compared with no exercise, physical activity was associated with lower risks of cognitive impairment, Alzheimer disease, and dementia of any type [4]. The activities that stimulate central nervous system activity (the brain is the hub of the CNS) involve more body parts, cross the midline of the body, involve reciprocal limb use (e.g. right hand and left foot at the same time) and are engaging. Sounds like yoga, dancing, crawling, Turkish get-ups, running, cycling and swimming, right? To name a few…
  3. Blood flow disorders of the brain, like stroke, sits at number 3 in the causes of death, as of 2018, in Australia, and at number 4 in the USA. The risk factors are many, but include high cholesterol and blood pressure. And then there’s the stiff arteries. See number 1. Here’s where it get’s really cool: A recent systematic review of movement-based exercise known as Tai Chi Chuan continues to show low-impact intentional exercise is a preventative strategy for stroke [5].
  4. Next came airway cancers. I’m not going out on a limb here to say smoking causes airway cancer. So let’s look at the smoking factor and its relationship to movement. In people with lung cancer, we’ve already seen that exercise can reduce symptoms, improve quality of life, and potentially reduce length of hospital stay and post-operative complications [6]. Furthermore, having increased cardiorespiratory fitness as measured by VO2max was protective against getting lung cancer [7].
  5. The 5th cause of death in Australia (4th in the USA) in 2018 was lower respiratory diseases—deep in the lungs…the obstructions, the infections, that sort of thing. One of the measures of lung function is how much air can be breathed out in one second—FEV1.0, which declines when a person has lower respiratory disease. We’ve seen that moderate to high levels of physical activity can reduce this decline [8].

Together, these top 5 accounted for 57,943 deaths in 2018 in Australia. If we had 57,943 deaths due to any cluster of problems, like coronavirus, plane crashes, mass murders, suicide bombings, refugees dying in detention, motor vehicle accidents, or even more so, concussion-related deaths in sport, it would be an election decider. In the case of coronavirus, in Australia, there have been 247 deaths as of August 6, 2020, which is enough to close our borders, lock down entire states and declare a state of emergency and state of disaster. The contagion of a novel virus is part of the reason for such a response. Who’s to say that the slow-boiling frog of the top 5 killers isn’t a contagion?

Some of these health problems are contributed to by to “own fault” factors; they are related in some part to the expression of genetic output due to our own lifestyle factors. So, when we look at the science above, we have a chance to offset the risk. The governments around the world definitely give some effort to telling the population about what they can do, themselves, to offset the risk. Let me spell it out: You have power over these risks—and the government does tell you this, if you care enough to listen.

Unfortunately, however, the trend to shift blame for our own problems is increasing. Phrases such as, “The system doesn’t do enough,” or “the system is to blame” is a common catch-cry. I hate it. Since this trend to blame the government for not doing enough is growing, it is part of election campaigns, “the health spending rhetoric.” Whoever can convince the population they are spending big on health will win over an electorate.

So, I ask myself, am I right when I say the risks for dying are down to our own actions? Or are others right when they blame government for not doing enough? The government can’t make us fitter, right? They can’t make us gain thoracic mobility to improve our arterial stiffness—that’s on us, right? They can’t make us improve our quality of life to stave off cancer and lower respiratory disease, right?

Or, could we be correct in blaming government for not doing enough?

Well, let me point out what some science tells us. It could be that if we have an expectation that the government has an effect on our lives, we might be worse off.

Whoa. Read that again.

“Greg, are you saying that the very act of blaming the government could be making us worse?”

Yeah. Stay away from expecting of government when it comes to your own outcomes.

The reverse has been shown—that what we expect of ourselves can have an effect on our quality of life. In the US, even expecting to live to 35, or expecting to go to college, has predicted fewer youth smoking and more youth being physically active [9].

Now, I’m not saying to disregard the potency of government in helping us. The government knows how effective movement is too… well, their advisors and number crunchers do, even down to the fact that having healthier healthcare workers will save them problems, time and money. If we’re unlucky enough to be serviced by health workers who are overworked, stressed and burned out, the chances of them committing errors can go up! [10] What luck! Just when you get moving, your doctor makes an error because he or she doesn’t move enough!

The government knows that exercises can reduce anxiety levels and exhaustion symptoms while improving the mental and physical well-being of healthcare workers [10]. That’s why the healthcare lobby is so powerful; the ripples on our nations spending are perpetual.

So, our own expectations drive our future choices. That’s been shown above with respect to the youth smoking and college attendance. Then, our own choices lead to our own consequences. That’s scientifically clear in the top five causes of death.

So, the movement choices we make can indeed extend our life. Doing more in a movement sense is the easiest way to start. But, the effects of movement, physical activity, exercise—whatever it’s called—on these deathly diseases do take a long time to occur. And the tide is heavily against our society when it comes to prevention—we’ve seen how sitting is the new smoking. But the influence we can have on our families is immense if we take, literally, one step at a time.

Ok. I’ve given some science to support the idea that we can limit the risk of developing a “top 5” death risk factor. Let me describe the “no, we can’t” part.

Out of left field comes a new batch of research that kicks us in the nuts. Could it be that the blame for cause of death is squarely upon the shoulders of parents and grandparents? Of the 15 causes above falls, the top five might be our grandparent’s fault.

Wait, what?

Dr. Stuart Warren, an Australian general practitioner, physiotherapist and graduate of exercise science, explains. As a life long advocate of exercise, he says our death-causing diseases might be blamed on our grandparents, irrespective of our physical activity. “We are paying for the sins of our parents and grandparents. It’s not a feel-good concept…there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Dr Warren is talking about epigenetics, the concept that suggests that what we do, or don’t do, when it comes to healthy lifestyle choices, will pass on in our genes to our children and grandchildren.

“You can probably swim against the stream, but it’s your parents who influence the speed of the stream!” says Dr Warren. He’s not only a GP, but a military medical practitioner, qualified physiotherapist, exercise physiologist and, for good measure, a retired bicycle mechanic, welder and trash-talking track cyclist. So, he’s as qualified as can be to open this can of worms. He epitomizes the get-off-your-social-media-and-move concept by NOT having an online presence at all.

When we look further into the concept to verify Dr Warren’s claims, we end up among professors and esteemed scientists who are even suggesting that what happens in our early childhood could affect what happens in later generations! [11]

So, if epigenetics can broadly be true, is exercise for health really worthwhile if our genetic fate is determined two generations before we’re even born?

Of course it is! Don’t give up that easily. There’s a common thread between systems that drive health of our muscles and joints and those that drive the health of the systems that fail most often, leading to death.

That common thread is balance. Not “less-wobble” balance but the balance of systems. Homeostasis. The right amount of electrical charge, stress or relaxation, toxins or cleansing process, movement and recovery—it is all balance. Too little is harmful. Too much is harmful.

While much of the top 5 diseases are adult-heavy, our youth aren’t immune to these diseases. Movement packs a punch here too. With obesity rampant in western societies, there is a clear link between movement and obesity in children, and adults. Worse movement is related to lower levels of physical activity and obesity in children [12] and adults [13].

It’s clear, then, that the role we play in adopting one extra health recommendation will save more of our family members than if we give in to the trends of modern society. Allow your kids to sit less and your kids will live longer, with fewer health issues. Switch on screens less, step outside more often…and you yourself will live longer.

Your family’s health depends on it.

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1.         Statistics, A.B.o. Causes of Death. 2019  [cited 2020 August 6th, 2020]; Available from:

2.         Heron, M., Deaths: Leading Causes for 2017. Natl Vital Stat Rep, 2019. 68(6): p. 1-77.

3.         Yamamoto, K., et al., Poor trunk flexibility is associated with arterial stiffening. American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology, 2009. 297(4): p. H1314-H1318.

4.         Laurin, D., et al., Physical Activity and Risk of Cognitive Impairment and Dementia in Elderly Persons. Archives of Neurology, 2001. 58(3): p. 498-504.

5.         Zheng, G., et al., Tai chi chuan for the primary prevention of stroke in middle-aged and elderly adults: a systematic review. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2015. 2015: p. 742152-742152.

6.         Bade, B.C., et al., Increasing physical activity and exercise in lung cancer: reviewing safety, benefits, and application. J Thorac Oncol, 2015. 10(6): p. 861-71.

7.         Pletnikoff, P.P., et al., Cardiorespiratory fitness and lung cancer risk: A prospective population-based cohort study. J Sci Med Sport, 2016. 19(2): p. 98-102.

8.         Garcia-Aymerich, J., et al., Regular Physical Activity Modifies Smoking-related Lung Function Decline and Reduces Risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2007. 175(5): p. 458-463.

9.         McDade, T.W., et al., Adolescents’ expectations for the future predict health behaviors in early adulthood. Social science & medicine (1982), 2011. 73(3): p. 391-398.

10.       Romani, M. and K. Ashkar, Burnout among physicians. Libyan J Med, 2014. 9: p. 23556.

11.       Grossniklaus, U., et al., Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: how important is it? Nat Rev Genet, 2013. 14(3): p. 228-35.

12.       Duncan, M.J., M. Stanley, and S. Leddington Wright, The association between functional movement and overweight and obesity in British primary school children. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil, 2013. 5: p. 11.

13.       Perry, F.T. and M.S. Koehle, Normative data for the functional movement screen in middle-aged adults. J Strength Cond Res, 2013. 27(2): p. 458-62.