I recently had a conversation with a surgeon about the role that fitness plays in fighting disease. He answered (rather tongue in cheek) that in his experience it seems that those folks who seem to take the poorest care of themselves are often the ones who simply will not die.
This was not what I was expecting to hear, but it is based on anecdotal evidence rather than research.
Research, on the other hand, shows that those who are physically fit–who exercise on a regular basis, maintain a proper diet, and get enough sleep–are less likely to be afflicted by disease. In particular, exercise is known to reducte the risk of diabetes (type 2), heart disease, many types of cancer, anxiety and depression, and dementia. Even so, we do hear about people who seem to be in tip-top condition who receive terrible diagnoses as well as those who treat their bodies poorly and live to a ripe-old age. The reality is that there are many factors (genetics, environment, luck) that shape our overall health and longevity.
What happens, though, to those who are fit and become ill? Often–though not always–those who are in better shape at the time of their diagnosis have a better chance of beating the disease. Those who exercise regularly, eat right, and get plenty of sleep can have stronger immune systems; this is key in fighting off disease. When treatment involves surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, their bodies are often better able to tolerate the stress being placed on them. People who are accustomed to setting health and fitness goals may also have a better outlook about their ability to achieve good health again.
Bet there are no guarantees. So why even bother? If I work out regularly and have other good health habits and I may still get cancer, or Parkinson’s Disease, or Alzheimers, etc., why go to all the trouble? Because maintaining a healthy lifestyle should not be primarily about preventing disease; it should be about being able to enjoy life to the fullest for however long we are given on this planet. There are folks–like the ones the surgeon mentioned–who may life longer, but they may be very limited in their ability to carry out activities of daily living, let alone take advantage of the many opportunities that are out there.
There are no guarantees. All we can do is take the best care of the bodies entrusted to us so that we can enjoy the blessings and love all around us.