Obese, demented and depressed due to too little exercise? Not only muscles but also the immune system, heart, brain and psyche suffer when muscles atrophy. How quickly this occurs, how lack of exercise increases other risk factors and how much exercise is necessary to stay healthy.

Every second moves too little. In many cases, the pandemic exacerbated this massively. It is well known that health can suffer as a result. But just how serious a lack of exercise really puts a strain on the body and even the psyche and promotes diseases only gradually becomes apparent in all its consequences. Lack of exercise is at least as important a risk factor for our health as smoking and high blood pressure.

These findings come from large studies that compared individual risk factors, with fitness and physical activity or the lack thereof only being included in more recent studies.

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“All results consistently point in the same direction: If the factor of lack of exercise is integrated, it beats the other risk factors by far,” reports Martin Halle, senior medical director of the chair and the polyclinic for preventive and rehabilitative sports medicine at the medical faculty of the Technical University of Munich in conversation with FOCUS Online.

In plain language, this means that anyone who is overweight has a greatly increased risk of diabetes. With fitness, however, he can compensate for this risk, according to the sports doctor. The same applies to diabetes. Diabetics are at high risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, angina pectoris, heart attacks and strokes. A diabetic who is fit to moderately fit still has these risks, but they are significantly lower compared to a diabetic who is not physically fit.

“Lack of exercise worsens the health of the heart and other organs as well as blood vessels, brain and psyche,” summarizes Martin Halle. He compares the set of risk factors to balloons tied down by their strings. This cohesion, the basis, forms our muscles. So the muscle influences everything. In order to reduce the risk of disease as much as possible, a balance between muscle and fat cells is important.

In order to understand what this balance means, you have to know what happens in the fat cell and what happens in the muscle cell, explains the sports medicine specialist and cardiologist:

Fat Cell: This storage organ of fats, once overfilled and bloated, sends information throughout the body through inflammatory factors. The fat cell gives the alarm, so to speak. These inflammatory substances, in turn, can wreak havoc throughout the body. For example, they block the insulin receptor and stick it together. As a result, sugar can no longer get into the cell, and diabetes progresses. “These inflammatory factors stress the entire system like glue,” explains the expert.

However, the body is not at the mercy of the negative effects of fat cells. Fat cells have potent opponents, the muscle cells, the more, the better. It is well known that muscles are built up through movement and stress.

Muscle cell: When stimulated, such as that triggered by movement, it also sends out messenger substances. With every muscle contraction, information is sent to the body. In this way, the heart receives the information to beat faster, and happiness substances are released in the brain. Martin Halle compares this with a “listening example”: If you put an ear trumpet on your body when it is resting, you would only be able to hear a slowly murmuring conversation. With intensive sport, however, there would be a background noise like in the south curve in the game Bayern vs BVB when Bayern scores a goal.

These mechanisms are being recognized more and more. Triggered by movement, not only does the muscle emit messenger substances, the myokines, but also the bones, the osteokines. “These messenger substances reach individual organ systems, lead to regeneration of the retina in the eye, to recovery of the brain cells in the brain, similar things to the heart and liver,” the expert gives examples of the positive effects of sport.

These statements are important because it is only against this background that it becomes clear what massive consequences a lack of exercise and sports have: The information on regeneration is not passed on. And that actually affects every area of ​​the body, which is why lack of exercise is so damaging.

1. The muscles degenerate and atrophy, fascia harden and can become cracked, tendons shorten, the joints “rust” so to speak. Bones break down faster than they rebuild. The risk of arthrosis and osteoporosis increases. The entire musculoskeletal system suffers, these are the direct and well-known consequences of too little exercise.

2. The condition decreases, organs no longer function optimally, the lung volume decreases, the heart works less economically, the entire body is less resilient. risk of high blood pressure. Lack of exercise also puts a strain on the liver and kidneys, detoxification slows down and blood cells are no longer renewed as quickly. The lipid profile in the blood changes unfavorably, the “bad” blood fats such as LDL increase. The risk of arteriosclerosis increases and thus also of vascular diseases, ultimately heart attack and stroke. Glands are hardly stimulated, the hormone balance can get out of joint.

3. Obesity occurs when exercise does not burn additional energy. Those who hardly move only have an average basal metabolic rate of 1400 kcal (women) to 1800 kcal (men). If this limit is exceeded – which is quickly possible – the body stores the excess energy as fat. The negative consequences of obesity are well known, such as diabetes.

4. The risk of diabetes is increasing. Body cells, such as muscle cells, are less able to absorb glucose from the blood, and the blood sugar level rises. The less sport and therefore muscle there is, the worse sugar is broken down and the lower the insulin sensitivity.

5. The immune system loses power. Those who do sports have more active immune cells than inactive ones, as a study shows.

6. The risk of cancer increases. A lack of exercise plays a particularly important role in the development of colon, breast and lung cancer. However, those who exercise regularly can reduce their risk of cancer by up to 40 percent, as studies indicate.

7. Cognitive performance such as memory decreases, the risk of dementia increases when the body gets too little exercise. People who exercise regularly have an approximately 80 percent lower risk of these brain diseases, which also include Alzheimer’s.

The fatal effect of lack of exercise on the brain could be explained, among other things, by a decrease in a certain protein, the “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF). According to a study, the blood level of this growth factor falls by a good 10 percent with inactivity, but increases by around 30 percent with activity. BDNF is involved in the formation of new synapses, including in the brain in regions associated with memory.

8. Anxiety and depression increase. This can perhaps also be explained by the BDNF reduction – it can also be related to the development of depression. What is certain is that exercise causes more dopamine and serotonin to circulate in the blood, while lack of exercise is often associated with low levels of the so-called happiness hormones. In any case, studies indicate that the risk of depression is twice as high in inactive people as in active people, and that for anxiety is at least 60 percent higher.

9. The potential lifetime is reduced. Sport causes the telomeres, i.e. the protective caps of the chromosomes, to be lengthened, which means that the body cells stay young longer, according to a study. In the return phase, lack of exercise would significantly shorten life.

An analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study (1980-2014) shows the connection between sport and life expectancy in a particularly impressive way. “With a healthy lifestyle (30 minutes of exercise per day, a healthy diet like Mediterranean, little alcohol, no smoking and a BMR <25) you can extend the life expectancy of a 50-year-old by 12 years and that of a 50-year-old woman by 14 years", the sports scientist summarizes the result.

Health risks from a lack of exercise affect the entire body as well as the psyche. But how quickly do these dangers grow, how quickly do the negative consequences set in if there is a lack of exercise – like now in the lockdown?

Martin Halle reports on studies by NASA, the so-called bed rest studies. The test subjects actually lie in bed day and night. The aim is to simulate the conditions in space for the body, but without weightlessness. “Within three weeks, the muscles melt like butter in the sun,” explains the professor drastically.

This leads to a significant pre-aging of the body, for example the vascular reactivity decreases – an essential parameter for the biological age.

So the assumption that a few months less exercise won’t do any harm is wrong, even if it can vary a bit from person to person. “The risks of lack of exercise set in faster than is generally assumed, and even earlier in the case of older people,” warns the professor.

So doing nothing for a few weeks is not possible. In order to achieve effective muscle activity and thus trigger the anti-aging mechanisms, everyone should, if possible:

In order to achieve these three effects, it does not necessarily have to be the daily 30-minute walk. It also takes little time. Martin Halle suggests a daily 7-minute program that meets these requirements. “Each of the exercises only takes a minute and anyone could probably do it,” says the sports doctor. The seven exercises – if you want to do even more good for your health, you can complete the small, uncomplicated program twice a day – are as follows: