Exercise: It Isn’t What It Used to Be
Our bodies thrive on more physical activity, not less. Yet in the 21st century, the conveniences we all love have negated much of the physical activity—the exercise—that was once intertwined into the lives of our ancestors. Let’s face it, from Amazon to Uber to GrubHub, we’re not quite the hunters and gatherers that we once were, and we’ve lost much of the physical fitness inherit in what had been everyday life for thousands of years.
A byproduct of our more convenient lifestyle, and the corresponding decrease in exercise, is an undeniable 21st-century increase in our stress and health problems. Whether you call it self-care or just staying fit, it’s vitally important to maintain our physical fitness through regular exercise.
A little foreword: This article is not a ‘how to’ on exercise, nor does it promote one type of exercise over another. Instead, it’s a recap of the ‘why’ of exercise. A gentle prodding, if you will, to motivate you to get started, or re-started, with this essential part of living a more healthy and satisfying life. I hope that this review of the benefits of getting fit through exercise will be the catalyst that gets you off and running. Or walking. Or lifting. And with that, let’s have a look at just a handful of the many benefits of exercise for you … body, mind and soul.
A Stronger Body: How Exercise Benefits Your Health
Energy Boost – The Most Important Benefit of Exercise!
Online articles touting the benefits of exercise almost always include a boost in your energy level, but it’s often near the bottom of the list. To me, that’s backwards! Why? Because a ‘lack of energy’ is often cited as the very reason for not exercising on a regular basis. And you sure won’t be getting all of the other important benefits of exercise if you don’t … exercise! So while it’s somewhat of a Catch-22, it’s crucial to overcome the ‘lack of energy’ reluctance by understanding this basic premise: exercise provides the very increased energy level that is needed to be able to exercise. Simply getting started is what’s required to begin to reap the rewards; they just don’t happen any other way.
And although you likely know intuitively that exercise does improve your energy level, maybe it’ll help if we briefly dive into the physiological aspect of how it works.
Clearly, exercise increases your blood flow. Because the bloodstream is the delivery mechanism for oxygen and nutrients, the increased blood flow naturally delivers more oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. Also, regular exercise has been shown to increase hormone production, specifically catecholamines (dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), human growth hormone and testosterone. (Guys, take note of that last one!) Exercise also helps your body more efficiently use stored fat for fuel—not a bad benefit, right?
Routine exercise can help stabilize your blood sugar levels, thereby eliminating the carbohydrate/sugar highs and ‘crashes’ that often lead to fatigue.
Finally … sleep. That’s right, getting a good night’s rest is often one of the first-noticed benefits after someone begins to exercise regularly. Your body is designed to regenerate itself, and meaningful regeneration occurs only during deep sleep. Nothing promotes restful, sound sleep like a good workout! Being sure that your body is getting certain nutrients can help you sleep better too. Remember, a great tomorrow starts with a good night’s sleep tonight.
As heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S., the importance of maintaining your heart’s health cannot be overstated. And when it comes to heart health, exercise is an absolute must. Like any muscle, the heart responds to regular exercise, and strengthening your heart is absolutely essential to your short-term and long-term health.
Exercise has been proven to lower your blood pressure, boost your ‘good’ cholesterol while decreasing harmful triglycerides. Combined, these effects greatly reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Exercise has even been demonstrated to help smokers ‘kick the nicotine habit’ and eliminate a primary cause of heart disease.
Exercise makes your lungs stronger! Over time, regular exercise makes your body far more efficient at supplying oxygen in the blood and delivering it to your muscles. The muscles involved in breathing, including your diaphragm, are, well, muscles. And like all muscles, the more they’re used, stronger they become and the easier it is for them to do their job. Exercise literally makes you less likely to experience a shortness of breath whether you’re working out, walking up a flight of stairs or just playing with the kids.
Stronger Muscles, Increased Agility
Everyone knows that working out, exercising, makes your muscles stronger. Similarly, most everyone knows that stronger muscles are able to do more with less fatigue. But what many don’t consider is that along with the increased strength comes increased flexibility. When you’re more flexible, more agile, you’re far less likely to be injured in day-to-day activities. If you’ve ever pulled or strained a muscle, you know it can be serious and quite painful. Avoiding a pulled or strained muscle can eliminate missed time from work or other important activities in life.
Osteoporosis is the weakening of your bones as you age, and like it or not, we’re all subject to a loss of bone density as we get older. But you don’t have to take that bone loss and decrease in bone density lying down. In fact, you shouldn’t! Certain weight-bearing exercises can help you build and maintain bone density. Combined with strengthened muscles that support the bones, exercise can help avoid fractures, especially as you move beyond your twenties and thirties.
It’s a very common misconception that you can exercise your way to weight loss. After all, you are burning more calories when you exercise, right? Yes, but there’s more to it than that—exercise alone is not going to control your weight. If you research the number of calories burned during exercise compared to the number of calories you consume in a typical meal (or even most snacks), you’ll quickly realize why this is so. Instead, weight loss will always involve exercise combined with a proper diet and an understanding of nutrition. So while it is exceedingly difficult—impossible for all intents and purposes—to lose weight simply by exercising, exercise does play an important role in weight management! A pound is a pound, whether it’s muscle or fat. But a pound of muscle burns far more calories—up to five times more—than a pound of fat. And muscle is far more dense than fat, so a pound of fat is much more bulky than a pound of muscle. Since exercise increases your body’s percentage of muscle compared to fat, you will in fact burn more calories as you build muscle through weight-bearing exercise. It’s also been shown that muscle mass burns fat, even when you’re at rest. That alone should be reason to include muscle building in your exercise regimen.
It is worth noting that you’ll likely consume more calories when you exercise, but it’s not an issue when you’re eating the right foods and including the right nutrients. Think of it this way: Which is healthier, 190 pounds, muscular and with low body fat, or 190 pounds with a high percentage of body fat and out of shape?
Regular exercise has been shown to greatly reduce your overall risk of serious illness. There is a strong correlation of a reduction in the rate of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke with increased and regular exercise. As noted above, the number one ‘killer’ in the United States is heart disease. I hope you’ll consider the overwhelming evidence for increasing your heart health through exercise as reason to get, and stay, moving!
Exercise is Good for Your Mind
Studies have shown that exercise releases dopamine in your brain. Often referred to as a ‘runner’s high’, this is a very real—and noticeable—phenomenon. But unlike what you might otherwise think of as getting ‘high’, the effects on your brain from exercising are overwhelmingly positive. Exercise is known to improve both attention span and memory. In fact, studies suggest that routine exercise even reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. With dementia cases growing rapidly over the past few decades, this alone should make a strong case for taking up some form of regular exercise, regardless of your age. They say you’re never too old to learn. I say, you’re never too old to exercise!
And while exercise plays an important role in our cognitive ability, it’s hard to quantify that ‘runner’s high’. It really does make you feel great. And with so many troubling issues in the world today, exercise as a form of self-care absolutely should be high on your priority list.
Exercise is also documented to help lower stress and reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Someone once told me, ‘If you’re having a bad day, stop it and go for a walk instead.’ Turns out that helpful suggestion had science on its side.
Putting vanity aside, it would still be a huge omission to leave out self-esteem. If the person you see in the mirror isn’t as healthy as you’d like them to be, the person in the mirror is the one that can help make all the difference. Remind them, regularly, of all the things you’ve learned or been reminded of today. Like all of us, that person staring back at you sometimes just needs a reminder of the ‘why’ in order to get started and keep going. And when they do, they will notice they feel better about themself, and are happier knowing that they’re well on their way to looking and feeling better, and living a more healthy and satisfying life.
Exercise … for the Soul?!
First, and this is really personal, I find that exercise brings an immediate and powerful sense of peace. For me, it’s a kind of calming peace that allows me to more easily shift my focus away from myself to others, and how I might be able to help them. I love the irony that this act of self-care allows me to care more for others.
As a person of faith, I’m taught to ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.‘ Words to live by to be sure. And, regardless of your faith, few things in life give you the satisfaction of selflessly helping others. Whether it’s volunteering your time at a local food bank or homeless shelter, working on a community cleanup project, taking the time to share your knowledge and skills with others, or just helping a neighbor in need, giving is indeed good for the soul.
But, outside of a peaceful mindset, how do giving and exercise relate to one another? It’s simple, really. When you exercise and are in good shape, you just have more energy. You’re likely to be in better overall health. With better health, both physically and mentally, you’re in a much better position to help others. And it’s a 360 effect too—the better you feel, the more you’re able to help others. And the more you help others, the better you feel. May the circle be unbroken!
So there you have it, my favorite ways that exercise helps you grow stronger in body, mind and soul. The only thing left to do is get started. As the old saying goes, ‘Nothing to it but to do it.’
Now … Getting Started with Your Exercise
First, a disclaimer: If you have health challenges or haven’t exercised in a long time, you should definitely consult with a physician before diving in too deep.
However, starting small is almost the right course of action regardless of your background or current fitness level. Running may not be right for you, but walking almost certainly is. And miles of walking isn’t required, especially at first. Starting small beats not at all! Similarly, you probably don’t want to start with high-intensity strength training, but curling a big can of soup gets you off the starting line and onto the track. Remember that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’
I strongly urge you to go back through all of the exercise benefits we’ve covered here—while keeping in mind that there are so many more you’ll discover along your own fitness journey—and take that first step today. You’ll be amazed at how that literal first step can transform everything!
It’s true that we’re no longer the hunters and gatherers that our ancestors were, yet we can’t afford to be couch bound! Start with the end in mind, consider the amazing upside to exercise and just start moving. Remember, as it is with most significant accomplishments in life, it’s one step at a time. And over time, you’ll continue to build strength, confidence, endurance and health … benefits for the body, mind and soul that you just can’t get any other way.
I believe in you!
Until next time,