By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
Antioxidants are an important part of your body; they are molecules in your body that combat free radicals. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that are highly reactive due to an unpaired valence (outer shell) electron that can donate or accept an electron from another atom type or become paired within another free radical.
Free radical accumulation in your body, however, can cause considerable degenerative damage to your cells’ structure and function. Those changes are due to degenerative DNA changes.
How Do Free Radicals Affect Your Health?
Free radicals are created within your body daily. When toxic (poisonous) free radicals overwhelm your body’s immune defenses, that causes oxidative stress (an imbalance between the free radicals and antioxidants in your body), potentially leading to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses.
As unstable molecules, free radicals are highly reactive. They seek to join neighboring molecules such as DNA, essential proteins and cell membranes in an attempt to become stable. But when the membrane structure of otherwise healthy molecules become injured, the altered molecules become free radicals themselves, creating a chain reaction that may continue causing damage throughout your entire body.
Why Exercise Is Good for Your Body
Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper is the founder of The Cooper Institute in Dallas and the author of two books, “Aerobics” in 1968 and “Antioxidant Revolution” in 1997. He is often credited for alerting the world that regular exercise and the increased consumption of antioxidants neutralizes free radical damage to body cells, greatly decreasing your risk for numerous forms of cancer. In other words, sedentary living combined with the accumulation of unstable free radicals in your body cells increases antioxidative stress, making you more vulnerable to numerous age-related diseases.
Dr. Cooper is also known as the father of aerobics. He sparked the health and fitness movement by quantifying the amount of exercise needed to increase both one’s lifespan (total years of life) and healthspan (years of healthy living).
Dr. Cooper had a 13-year military career serving in both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. While in the Air Force, Dr. Cooper devised the Cooper Test. The original version of this test was the distance someone could run in 12 minutes, which enabled simultaneous fitness assessments for large numbers of servicemen and servicewomen.
Regular Exercise, Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress
The American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention states that regular exercise strengthens immune function against free radical damage. Regular exercise helps to reduce your body weight (obesity being a factor in nearly 20% of cancer deaths), and it also improves the regulation of critical hormones such as insulin and estrogen.
Adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week to decrease oxidative stress and cancer risk. Ideally, exercise sessions should be spread throughout the week.
You do not need to be a marathon runner, which carries health risks of its own such as arthritis and other overuse injuries. Walking at three miles per hour (a pace that is 20 minutes per mile) is considered moderate-intensity exercise. Considerable research has verified that increased oxidative damage in cells occurs with advancing age and that reduced free radical accumulation increases both the quantity and quality of your life.
A Healthy Diet Can Increase Natural Antioxidants in Your Body
The dietary antioxidant “revolution” began in the 1990s. Human and animal research revealed that regular exercise and a healthy diet increase natural antioxidants such as quercetin, resveratrol, and curcumin. For instance, these vitamins and one mineral can be consumed as a part of a healthy diet:
- Vitamin A (a family of vitamins called retinoids that contain the provitamin beta carotene)
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
- Vitamin E (tocopherol)
- Selenium (a mineral found in certain meats and other foods)
Vitamin C has several roles in the body. For instance, it helps your immune system control infections, assists wound healing after injury and protects against scurvy.
Other vitamins have different roles in your body. Vitamin A protects epithelial tissue and is especially important for smokers who are often deficient in beta carotene and prone to lung cancer. Vitamin E helps maintain cell wall integrity and regulates and enhances your metabolism.
Certain vitamins – A, E, D and K – are soluble in fat. Fat-soluble vitamins are best absorbed from the small intestine and into your blood as you eat foods high in fat. They can be stored in your fat tissue and your liver for up to six months until your body needs them.
By contrast, Vitamin C and B-complex vitamins cannot be stored in your body and are commonly eliminated from your body through urination, unless those vitamins are needed immediately. As a result, they require frequent replenishment.
Megadosing on water-soluble vitamins, however, is not necessarily good for your body. The amount of vitamins you should consume to remain healthy requires a detailed trial-and-error process.
Overconsumption of vitamins could put you at risk for some diseases or even cause a disease. In fact, Americans’ overuse of vitamin supplements have led many people to jokingly speculate that Americans have the most expensive urine in the world.
Regular Exercise and a Healthy Diet Are Especially Important as You Age
The Greek philosopher Plato once said that “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” In a similar vein, Hippocrates, considered the father of medicine, observed, “Let medicine by thy food and food be thy medicine.”
But it took Dr. Kenneth and others until the 20th century to reveal to the general public the precise mechanisms by which regular physical activity and antioxidant consumption provide powerful protection against oxidative stress and cancer. As our bodies age, staying healthy through exercise and proper diet will become increasingly important.