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Would you like to reduce the risk of developing anything from cancer to Alzheimer’s? In that case, you should expose your body to heavy physical stress. So heavy that it borders on being injurious.

We already know that exercising is good. It makes us fit and reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

But there is more: ”It increases the protection against many types of cancer and reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. And there is even more. We are on the scent of new biological and physiological mechanisms,” says Professor Alf Brubakk at the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

”When the human body is exposed to heavy physical stress, the body develops protection against diseases and external physical strain. We are talking about a very concrete, often measurable connection,” says Professor Brubakk.

”One of the most astonishing facts related to these mechanisms is that the protective effect is measurable after a single load,” says Brubakk. That could indicate that even the first workout yields results.

Cold shock and radiation

The characteristic feature of the mechanisms that Professor Brubakk and his colleagues are working to reveal is that they affect areas we usually do not think of as health-promoting – we only think of them as physical overload.

Extreme cold/heat is one type of physical overload: exposing our bodies to strong heat, for instance in a sauna, causes the «chock proteins» to mobilize and protect us from serious injury related to deep-water diving. We have reason to believe that exposure to cold has similar effects.

Another type of physical stress that we are used to regard as solely harmful is radiation. “It is a well-known fact that radioactive radiation causes cancer. But it is less known that minor doses of radioactive radiation actually reduce the risk of developing cancer,” says Brubakk. He immediately adds that we do not know enough about the optimal dosage yet.

Bordering on injurious

”In general, we still know very little about the amount necessary to provide protection, how often the load must be repeated and how long and in what way the body is protected after a load,” Brubakk says.

So far, results indicate that the load must be heavy. ”It appears that it should be so heavy that you are bordering on injurious. That is when the effect is best, by far,” Brubakk explains.

When it comes to exercising, short and hard workouts provide the best effect compared with longer workouts with lower intensity.

Stressed pigs survive

Professor Brubakk is heading a world-leading research environment within diving. It was pilot studies in this area that led them to these mechanisms. ”Several times, we saw that experimental animals that were exposed to stress right before potentially deadly experiments actually survived,” says Brubakk.

During other experiments, researchers saw that hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) – the supply of oxygen under increased pressure – activates stem cells from the bone marrow, and particularly those cells that protect against blood vessel damage. This type of stem cells can also form the basis for cells that later develop into for instance brain cells.

”We believe these mechanisms are universal, where the exact type of connection is irrelevant. The general message is that physical load, physical stress in general, is healthy for your body," he says.

At a deeper level, this deals with how the human organism is perceived, according to Brubakk. “We are dynamic creatures. For instance, the fact that our body temperatures vary throughout the day is a sign of good health. The same goes for blood pressure. We need to abandon the type of thinking that says that changes are bad. On the contrary, it is static situations that are injurious.”

The Good Stress

Brubakk advocates much more research into these connections. It could lead to major social benefits. One large area is work-related injuries: If certain occupational groups that are particularly exposed to injury because of their work, with simple means could reduce the frequency of injuries, the economic effect would be substantial.

”This deals with preventing disease and damage to our own health. The deficit in the public health service is increasing despite the fact that we are spending more money in this field than ever. The only long-term solution is to reduce the need by strengthening people’s ability to deal with the stress in society. We could call it «The Good Stress»,” concludes Professor Alf Brubakk.

By Tore Oksholen/Gemini

Nina Tveter | alfa
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