Eat less and exercise more to stave off disease, says muscle guru

Overeating and lack of exercise can have a major impact on whether or not people will develop a chronic disease prematurely, Bengt Saltin, who established the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre in Denmark, told graduating students Thursday at York’s Spring 2011 Convocation ceremony.

Saltin received an honorary doctor of laws degree from York at the ceremony for students graduating from York’s Faculty of Health.

Bengt SaltinLeft: Bengt Saltin

“We are a product of our genes and environmental factors,” said Saltin, recognized as one of the earliest and most influential figures in generating research, underpinning the theory of exercise as medicine. “To stay healthy and avoid or at least delay the development of chronic diseases is a function of gene/environmental interaction.”

He said graduands might think he’s referring to access to clean water, toxic substances or the endemic spread of bacteria and viruses. “Yes, they have played a role…but where you live in Canada and where I live in Europe there are other lifestyle factors, which are more important today due to the development in our part of the world.”

In less than a decade, he said, the World Health Organization has predicted that 70 per cent of all chronic diseases that lead to death will be lifestyle related. “We are faced with a dilemma that our genes have been formed over thousands and thousands of years for quite a different lifestyle. Our ancestors had limited supply of food and they had to do hard physical work just to survive,” said Saltin. “Just centuries back this was the situation for most on the globe. Thus, there has to be strong restraints on food and plenty of exercise for our genes to be expressed optimally.”

Bengt Saltin receiving his honorary doctor of lawsRight: Bengt Saltin receiving his honorary doctor of laws

In Western society, that’s not the case. There is no lack of food and many people are overweight. In addition, people in the West don’t exercise enough and that is twice as important.

“In the World Health Organization’s prognosis for 2020, the big killer is lack of physical activity and poor nutrition combined. In the mortality statistics for North America being overweight in itself is not a killer, but taken together, inactivity and bad food are already equal to smoking as a cause of death,” said Saltin.

He told the graduands that he speaks of disease and death on their graduation day because as they embark on this new phase in their lives, his wish is that they lead an active, healthy life free of disease. In fact, “you should be proud of your University, which is focusing intensely and successfully on healthy aging.” He said their choices can have a big impact on their own health.

York’s 2011 Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view Saltin’s convocation address, visit the Convocation website.