In my last week’s blog I talked about a different approach to weight loss by focussing on your health first. A healthy weight is the result of a healthy body. In this framework, exercise is not a means to an end – exercise is not a means to lose weight, but rather part of a healthy lifestyle. Exercise keeps us healthy, and as a result, keeps us at a healthy body composition.
So building on that, this week I want to talk about why exercise is important for everyone, at any weight.
First, let me explain what I mean when I talk about exercise.
A lot of people when they think of exercise have this picture of a gym in their mind. They’re thinking of treadmills and elliptical machines and lifting heavy weights. However, this is a very limited view and exercise includes much more than that.
Exercise means physical activity where you move your body and increase the heart rate. This includes walking, gardening, going up stairs, cycling, kicking a ball around, yoga, jogging, swimming, dancing etc.
Physical Benefits of Exercise
1 Strengthens the heart
The heart is a muscle. And just like with any other muscle in your body, if you want to strengthen it, you need to work it. A stronger heart is more efficient at pumping blood through your body. It can pump more blood in one beat and as a result can beat slower.
2 Reduces the risk of heart disease
Exercise helps dilate the body’s blood vessels and enables blood to circulate more freely. In one study, Harvard researchers found up to a 20% reduction of heart-disease risk for those who most frequently got vigorous exercise. This category included running or jogging, swimming laps, playing tennis, or doing aerobics.1 According to the Harvard Alumni Health Study, coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for over 700,000 deaths in 1996.1 Several studies have confirmed the overall benefit of physical activity in reducing the risk of heart disease. However, more than 60% of American adults are not regularly active.
3 Lowers blood pressure
This is the result of point 1 above. A stronger heart can pump more blood in a heartbeat. If the heart can work less to pump blood, the force on the arteries decreases, thus lowering blood pressure. Becoming more active can lower your systolic blood pressure — the top number in a blood pressure reading — by an average of 4 to 9 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). That’s as good as some blood pressure medications. For some people, getting some exercise is enough to reduce the need for blood pressure medication.2
4 Stronger bones
According to the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~ National Resource Center, most people start losing bone mass after the third decade in life.3 Regular exercise can help prevent the loss of bone mass. The best exercises are weight-bearing and resistance training. Since exercise also helps us maintain strength, coordination and balance, it helps prevent falls and related fractures. This is especially important when we get older and our bones more brittle (osteoporosis).
5 Stronger lungs
When you exercise, your heart and your lungs work hard to get the required oxygen to your muscles. The heart and breathing rates increase. In the same way that the heart gets more efficient at this job with exercise, the lungs become more efficient as well.4
The lung capacity increases (lung capacity is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use). This is one of the reasons you’re less likely to become short of breath during exercise over time.
6 Better skin
A very visible benefit of exercise is better healthy skin. And who doesn’t want to look younger for longer? Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to working cells throughout the body, including the skin. Blood flow also helps carry away waste products, including free radicals. Since exercise promotes circulation, increasing blood flow supports these processes. Exercise also helps from the outside. Sweating opens the pores and expels dirt and oil trapped within.
7 Prevents the loss of muscle mass
Sarcopenia is a condition where you lose muscle mass with age. After the age of 50 we lose 0.5 to 1% of muscle mass each year on average. Sarcopenia is both common and associated with serious health consequences in terms of frailty, disability, morbidity and mortality.5 Regular exercise can counteract that by strengthening and building muscle.
8 Stronger immune system
Research is still out to discover on how to improve our immune system. There are no proven links between an enhanced immune system and lifestyle. However, every part of our body functions better when protected from harmful substances and environmental attacks and supported by healthy living choices. These include no smoking, healthy diet, no or limited alcohol consumption, adequate sleep, reduced stress, avoiding infection (hygiene) and, of course, regular exercise.6
9 Better brain and cognitive function
I think it slowly becomes obvious by listing all the physical benefits of exercise that nearly every system in our body is impacted by exercise. This includes our brain. New research shows that exercise enhances and protects our brain.
Millions of neurons in the brain must last the 80 plus years of a lifetime. The brain can produce molecules that nourish neurons and ensure overall brain health. One such molecule is BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). It promotes the survival and growth of neurons. Exercise positively influences the level of BDNF. Clinical evaluations show that high levels of physical activity correspond with decreased incidence of cognitive impairments. Human studies suggest that exercise can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.7
10 Builds antioxidant reserve
You can get antioxidants through food, but your body can also manufacture antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent free radical damage. Free radicals damage the growth and development of cells in our bodies. The antioxidant enzymes in our bodies can be used over and over again and these enzymes increase with training.8
With all these physical benefits of exercise (and the list is by no means exhaustive), it’s no wonder that regular exercise (in whatever form works for you) enables us to stay younger for longer, regardless of your weight.
Stay tuned for my blog next week focussing on the mental benefits of exercise.
1 https://ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/01.cir.102.9.975 Physical Activity and Coronary Heart Disease in Men The Harvard Alumni Health Study Howard D. Sesso , Ralph S. PaffenbargerJr , and I-Min Lee
2 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/in-depth/high-blood-pressure/art-20045206 Exercise: A drug-free approach to lowering high blood pressure
3 https://www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/bone-health/exercise/exercise-your-bone-health Exercise for Your Bone Health Exercise for Your Bone Health
4 https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/protecting-your-lungs/exercise-and-lung-health.html American Lung Association – Exercise and Lung Health
5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4269139/ Clinical Definition of Sarcopenia in Clinical Cases in Mineral and Bone Metabolism, 2014 Sep-Dec; 11(3): 177–180
6 https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School, How to boost your immune system, 2014
7 https://dev-journals2013.lww.com/acsm-essr/Fulltext/2002/04000/Exercise_Enhances_and_Protects_Brain_Function.6.aspx Exercise Enhances and Protects Brain Function, Cotman, Carl W.; Engesser-Cesar, Christie, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: April 2002 – Volume 30 – Issue 2 – pp 75-79
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/ Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications, Arch Med Sci. 2015 Dec 10; 11(6): 1164–1178
https://www.the-scientist.com/features/this-is-your-brain-on-exercise-64934 How Exercise Reprograms the Brain
8 https://www.mysportscience.com/single-post/2018/06/10/Exercise-is-the-best-antioxidant Asker Jeukendrup, Exercise is the best antioxidant, June 10, 2018