The Physical Benefits of Exercise
We hardly need convincing. We all know that exercise is beneficial in so many ways. Yet we rarely commit to even incremental increases in our physical activity... if we can help it, or until a doctor prescribes it as part of treatment for disease.
Well, I am not your doctor. Chances are I'm not even your coach. But I am prescribing more exercise for you right now. No matter what your ailment is, almost certainly you can benefit from a few more minutes of elevated activity. Let me explain how.
This is Part One of a two-part series detailing how exercise affects our whole selves. This post will explore the manifold blessings of exercise for the body. (The second part will focus on the brain.)
First, exercise - even moderately elevated activity - helps to improve mobility and prevent falls. Daily exercise strengthens the muscles that hold the bones together making the body structure stronger. This improves agility and flexibility, making it easier to perform most daily tasks and prevent falls and injuries. Exercising is especially helpful for older people, since falling is one of the most common causes of injuries in that population. Even if you're not "older" yet, exercising now will help later!
Regular exercise is excellent for managing pain. It has been discovered that regular physical activity is beneficial for patients of arthritis, fibromyalgia and other such problems. Exercise has also been found to be extremely beneficial in chronic pain, especially of the lower back, neck, hip, and knees. This is because exercise elevates endorphins and other "pleasure" hormones, which dim the pain receptors in the brain. This effect continues even after exercising.
We all know that being active is a part of having a healthy weight. Lack of physical activity is a major cause of weight gain and obesity. It is, by some reports, the leading cause of death in the world today. A combination of exercise and a proper diet helps to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. Aerobic and cardio vascular routines are good for weight loss. Generally, 30 minutes of moderate to strenuous activity per day is ideal for weight management.
Exercise improves your cardiovascular system, strengthening your heart and improving blood flow. Any activity that elevates heart rate and respiration rate is good for heart health. (30 minutes per day of any activity that works your body hard enough to make it difficult to sing is good. If you exercise hard enough to not be able to talk, now you’re talking! In a manner of speaking. Or not.) Regular exercise helps reduce the risks of stroke and other coronary heart disease by 35%.
There is a direct connection between exercise and lower risk for colon cancer, breast cancer, endometrial and lung cancer. (Read that again.) A physically active person has 20% lower chance of breast cancer and 50% lower chance of colon cancer. If you have already suffered through cancer and survived, then physical activity improves the quality of life.
Type II Diabetes
Regular exercise is good for your body’s metabolism: it reduces the risk of diabetes and also of metabolic syndrome (when there is too much fat deposit around the middle of the body, which poses particular health threats than fat stored elsewhere on the body). Active people are 50% less likely to get type II diabetes. If you are already have type II diabetes, then moderate intensity exercise will help to keep your blood sugar under control (and help keep weight off).
Bones & Muscles
We all know that exercise helps to strengthen the bones and muscles. The long-term benefit of stronger bones and muscles is seen as one grows older, providing better support to the body. Aerobic and strengthening exercises can help prevent the loss of bone mass that occurs as we age. For physically active people, the risk for osteoarthritis is reduced by almost 83% and the risk of getting a hip fracture is reduced by 68%. Improving muscle mass and tone can occur at any age, but the sooner you start the better it is.
Brain and Mind
Physical exercise has tons of benefits for your brain and mood. It reduces the risk and severity of depression, improves sleep patterns, and improves memory, thinking process, judgment and learning skills. Working our body is good for our brain! When we exercise, the brain is stimulated, oxygenated and exercised. Hormones and chemicals are released during exercise that create happiness and even euphoria, improving the mood. This effect lasts long after the exercise itself has stopped.
Physical activity is known to improve longevity in people. (See my blog post on watching TV for more on this dynamic.) There are few other lifestyle choices that have more of an impact on your health and longevity as exercising does. Intense exercise for an hour a day can help reduce your risk of premature death. (“Intense” exercise is when you can’t carry on a conversation, only getting a few words out at a time and needing to concentrate on your movements.)
There is a link between increased physical activity and the body’s immune system. As your body engages in exercise and is more toned, your organs and blood have to work less to maintain your general health, and can spend more energy on fighting illness and disease.
In one of the cruelest twists of nature, the best way to get an energy boost is to exercise. Contrary to what we might expect, mild to vigorous exercise leaves a person energetic for a long time after they have stopped exercising.
A link between exercise and sleep quality has been definitively established. People who exercise regularly experience deeper sleep with fewer interruptions, making it more refreshing and restorative.
Maybe I should have listed this at the top. Regular exercise improves one’s libido. Physical activity tones up the body, makes it more shapely and attractive. Exercise maintains better skin, so you look and feel better. Your circulation is better (and that goes for "down-under" too), and you have more energy. A body that is regularly exercised is also able to handle stress better, and a healthy body that is not stressed out is able to give you more during sex.
Exercise releases a hormone that helps the brain cope better with stress. Exercise intense enough to work up a sweat is the best as it helps to manage physical and mental stress.
These are the “happiness hormones” I mentioned earlier. Exercise releases endorphins, which make you feel euphoric and happy. Endorphins are excellent for managing anxiety and depression.
Save your brain
New research has shown a very close connection between degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc. and lack of exercise. Physical activity may reduce the risks of such diseases. Some research has shown a connection between physical activity and neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells.
Among the hormones that exercise releases in the body is dopamine. Dopamine receptors in the brain are active when a person becomes addicted to drugs or other substances. Exercise can help in the fight against addiction.
The benefits of exercise for our inner selves, as you can see, are manifold. But it goes the other way, too. Exercise can be enhanced up to 15% in effectiveness by listening to appropriate music while you work out!
So strap on your iPod and take a brisk walk, sprint up and down the stairwell, do some push-ups and sit-ups in your cubicle, stop by a pull-up bar in the park, ride a bike to work (even part way)… whatever you do, make 30 minutes of elevated activity part of your daily routine. This time next year, you’ll wish you had started doing it even earlier.