Foundations of Good Oral-Systemic Health: Exercise

Our bodies are built to move. Yet more of us than ever live sedentary lives. In fact, the most recent data shows that more than one quarter of the US population – 28%, to be exact – is completely sedentary. They participate in no fitness-oriented recreational activities at all.

That figure has more than doubled in less than a decade.

That’s a lot of inertia – and another important piece in the puzzle of why we’ve seen rates of chronic disease skyrocket through recent years.

And it’s not just our bodies that suffer, but our minds. As neuroscientist John Medina recently noted in a presentation at the annual SHAPE conference,

We are not used to sitting at a desk for eight hours a day… From an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed while we walked or ran as many as 12 miles a day. The brain still craves this experience. That’s why exercise boosts brain power in sedentary populations like our own. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in long-term memory, reasoning, attention, and problem solving tasks.

Our bodies are built to move. Research consistently shows that too much sitting still means early death. Being physically active, on the other hand, provides a wide range of specific benefits, from countering chronic stress to boosting your brain power to lowering your risk of disease.

Think of your body as a car. If you leave it parked in the garage, seldom taking it out for a spin, it’s not going to work as well as it would if you drove it regularly. Eventually, it may not run at all. Likewise, your body. You need to use it regularly – and take care of it preventively, just as a car needs regular servicing – in order for it to work as well and efficiently as it can. It’s a simple fact of life.

But wait, you may be thinking, this is a dental blog. What does any of this have to do with my teeth? Glad you asked!

For one, there’s the simple – yet often strangely overlooked fact – that your teeth are connected with the rest of your body. Their health can affect your overall physical health, and vice versa. What you do to support your overall health goes to support your oral health, as well.

But more specifically, there’s a growing body of research that shows a relationship between physical activity and gum disease. For instance, one study in the Journal of Periodontology found that those who never smoked but exercised regularly “were about 54% less likely to have periodontitis than people who never smoked but did not engage in physical activity.” Former smokers fared even better: Severe gum disease rates were 75% lower!

Other studies have reached similar conclusions about the link between exercise and periodontal health. Just this past January, new research suggested that gum disease may actually be a marker for poor physical fitness.

In other words, your dentist may be able to gauge your general fitness level just by looking at the state of your gums.

While there’s some debate over the ideal amount – and kind of – exercise for maximum health benefit, current CDC recommendations for adults are at least 150 weekly minutes of moderate aerobic activity (e.g., jogging, brisk walking, working on a cross-trainer) and muscle strengthening activities at least two days a week.

The main thing is to make it something you like to do. It doesn’t have to mean going to a gym. It could be simply walking or cycling around town. It could be swimming or tennis or some other sport. Just make it something you like, and it’ll be easier to keep at it.

Also work on accepting exercise as a priority – not something you do if you have time (since that will almost ensure that you will never have time). Understand it as part of your daily hygiene practices. Just as you wouldn’t go for days on end without brushing or showering or drinking water or eating healthy food, you shouldn’t go without physical activity. Even if it’s less than what the CDC or other agencies or organizations recommend, some is better than none at all.

That even light activity can help improve health was shown in yet another recent study, which found that those who got up and moved around for at least a couple minutes each hour had a 33% lower mortality rate than those who stayed locked at their desk.

If such a little bit of activity can make such a big difference, think about what exercising regularly might be able to do for you!

Images by skeeze & Wokandapix