Why is Exercise Good For Your Health? - An In-Depth Look
Researchers don’t fully understand all the different reasons why exercise is good for us, but studies show that exercise improves immune system and lung function, lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol and raises ‘good’ cholesterol, and wards off heart disease and other chronic conditions.
Studies have demonstrated that to get the best health benefits, regular moderate exercise is what we should all aim for. But ‘moderate’ means different things to different people depending on their fitness level – and what is ‘moderate’ can change quite quickly over time too: if you go swimming for the first time in years one Monday you might only be able to swim one length of the pool, but if you keep going to the pool every day, by the end of the week you’ll probably be able to manage several lengths, and you’ll look back at that first Monday with a rueful grin at how out-of-shape you must have been even just a week ago!
Exercise is Not A 'Magic Bullet' or Cure-All. Be Aware of Your Risk Factors
Health research is a tricky thing - there are just too many variables and unknown factors to make any definite statements, and some of the research results mentioned in this article show only very slight differences due to exercise, but the incremental improvements of the combination of all the different smaller benefits of exercise do show a bigger picture which indicates that people who exercise regularly live longer, happier and healthier lives.
Important! The American Heart Association notes that there is a transient, short-lived risk that exercise may cause a heart attack in those who have certain risk factors. This risk decreases in those who exercise regularly. But before you embark on any exercise that is more vigorous or demanding than the level of physical exertion you normally do, or if you have any medical conditions or concerns, or any aches and pains, consult your doctor, and to make exercise safer, more enjoyable, and healthier, build up slowly to your exercise goals. Our bodies do not take sudden changes very well, even those which have worthy goals!
For more complicated exercises like yoga, tai chi, aerobics, or going to the gym, always find a good, reputable instructor who is well qualified to teach, because the risk of injury can be quite high, and especially if your teacher makes you feel as though you have something to prove, or is pushing you too far too fast.
When is Exercise Bad For You?
Exercise is almost always a good thing, but there are certain times when the risks outweigh the benefits, and it's better to be extra-careful:
During Illness – if your body is busy fighting the ‘flu, or dealing with severe illness or acute stress, the last thing it needs is for resources to be diverted and consumed by a vigorous aerobic workout. During recuperation, or if you are dealing with stress or a chronic illness, moderate exercise can speed recovery time and help your immune system, but if you are recovering, or have a long-term illness, listen to your body and don’t try to push yourself past your limits: forcing things won’t help your body to heal any faster.
After Eating – digestion takes up a lot of resources and energy, and after a meal it’s best to let your body concentrate for a couple of hours on the business of processing the food you’ve just eaten. The major reason for not exercising after eating, though, is simply because strenuous exertion when you’re full can make you throw up. This becomes an even bigger factor if you’re doing exercise like swimming or yoga, where you can be in a position where you can choke or drown.
Injuries – whether from a trapped nerve due to an over-enthusiastic yoga stretch, or a damaged joint from running on hard surfaces in the wrong footwear, injuries from exercise can be long lasting and painful. If it hurts STOP and see a doctor. Sore, stiff muscles the day after exercise is only to be expected, but exercise is not meant to cause real pain.
I am NOT medically qualified, and this article is not intended to replace good face-to-face advice from a doctor or sports instructor, it is simply some observations on health and exercise research, and is intended to point the interested beginner towards some of the benefits of exercise and to give links to some reputable sources of further information.
The Health Benefits of Exercise
There are masses of health benefits to doing regular physical activity, and athletes, health organisations and exercise gurus have filled thousands of library shelves with millions of books advising on some of the finer points, but the basic benefits are fairly simple and very broad, so what follows is just a small selection of some of the most eye-catching and stella reasons why we should all exercise a little more:
Any exertion that involves movement and makes you breathe a little harder than normal gets your circulation going. Exercise has been shown by researchers to make blood more fluid and less thick and sticky, so that oxygen and nutrients reach every cell, and platelets don’t form clots that can cause strokes and heart attacks. And exercise doesn’t just make blood more fluid; it also widens arteries and capillaries – improving circulation even more to make it easier for blood to move around the body carrying vital oxygen and nutrients.
There are two types of cholesterol – LDL and HDL, and the first is called ‘bad’, the second ‘good’. But both types are actually necessary for us to survive – the difference is that the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol can quite easily build up if we have more than we need, and this build up causes heart disease.
HDL (‘good’) cholesterol ‘fights’ the build up of ‘bad’ cholesterol by helping to carry it back to the liver, where it is broken down and then excreted as waste.
We need a little LDL in our bodies – it is one of the components of nerves and cells, and without it our hormones cannot do their job, but the amount we need is very small, and for many people the amount we have is far, far too much.
What you eat is important. The body converts the saturated fat in your food into LDL cholesterol, and over time that builds up. Small changes like eating a couple more portions of fruit and vegetables every day, having a bowl of porridge oats for breakfast, and making tomato and olive oil-based sauces instead of cream-based ones, all cut the risks of high LDL cholesterol.
But exercise is important too - it doesn’t just ‘burn up’ unwanted fat, it actively changes the ratio of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol – creating more of the HDL that carries the excess LDL out of our bodies.
Exercise increases your metabolism briefly. It used to be thought that exercise increased your metabolism for a long time – hours after you stopped exerting yourself - but now it is known that the effect only lasts while you’re exercising, and for a short time afterwards, perhaps just a few minutes or half an hour. This doesn’t mean that you have to exercise every minute of the day, but that you should aim for a little exertion every day, to increase your rate of breathing for at least a few minutes, and to get your heart pumping just a bit faster than usual.
Being Stronger and Fitter
This is the most obvious and visible effect of exercise, but it is not an easy one to quantify, because different people progress at different rates. To keep up your motivation if you are just beginning an exercise routine, pick a part of your routine that you find quite difficult, and try to find a way of measuring it. For me it was press-ups that were the hardest thing to do, and the first time I tried, I could barely even manage one full press-up! By day three, I could manage two full press-ups, and by the end of the first month I had stopped counting and just did as many as felt right. You might only need this motivational comparison for a few days, or you might like to keep a diary so that if you ever feel like skipping a week you can grab a bit of impetus to carry on by seeing how far you’ve come already.
The 'Happiness' Effects of Exercise
Endorphins: The ‘Feel Good Factor’
Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and they can make us feel happy and slightly ‘high’.
Many studies show that exercise relieves depression, and that its effectiveness is comparable to antidepressants (but without the risks of side-effects and dependency). This effect isn’t fully understood, but it is thought likely that it is related not just to the longer-term health benefits that exercise brings (like better circulation and stronger muscles) but also to endorphins and other feel-good substances produced by the body in response to exercise.
But that isn’t the whole story. The production of endorphins and other natural ‘feel-good’ chemicals is also triggered by a state of complete relaxation. They are not simply a pain-killing mechanism, nor just a serendipitous ‘reward’ system: they have a survival-type role (i.e. they help us cope with pain) but they also give us a means to relieve stress, depression and anxiety, and an actively pleasurable reason to seek both exercise and relaxation – both of which are important for health.
Empty Stress is Good for Nothing
Some stress is good. When you walk into that exam room, or go for a job interview, or are being chased by a man-eating tiger, stress and the adrenaline rush it causes can focus the mind wonderfully and let you recall Pythagoras’s Theorem or outrun the toothy wild animal. But being constantly ‘wired’ and in a state of fight-or-flight expectation will simply wipe you out. To recover from stress, you need the relief of a ‘goal’ (finishing that exam, or escaping the wild animal), which long-term constant ‘empty’ (goal-less) stress or anxiety never brings.
Which is where exercise comes in. Exercise endorphins are the same ones that are produced in times of utter relaxation, and create a serene mood of relaxation and happiness, providing a temporary escape from the stress of life.
What We Get is What We Get Used To
Our minds become accustomed to whatever they encounter most often: if you do sums all day, you’ll get to know at least part of the language of mathematics; and if you read lots of books, you’ll expand your vocabulary. And if you are stressed all the time, your first response to a situation – almost any situation – will be anxiety, fight/flight, and tension. If, on the other hand, you provide a shot of relaxation and happiness to your mind every day, your mind will be more and more likely to return to that state. It can be hard to conjure up feelings of relaxation and happiness from thin air, but what you can do, quite naturally, is coax out a good mood by exercising. And the more you do it, the more easily your mind will be able to return to that state.
A Group Demonstration of Tai Chi for Arthritis
Yoga for Sciatica (Part 1)
Yoga for Sciatica (Part 2)
Staying Fit and Healthy for Longer
Age might bring wisdom, but it also brings a whole host of less pleasant health conditions. Exercise can ward off many of these, and even if you’re beginning to exercise later in life when some of these illnesses have already struck, you can prevent further damage and even, in some cases, reverse some of the nastier effects of aging. Below are just some of the illnesses and diseases that regular exercise can protect you from, or to some extent keep under control.
Arthritis, Sciatica, and Other Painful Conditions
Lots of conditions are just ‘labels’ for a set of symptoms where the underlying cause is, in most cases, unknown. Arthritis is painful inflammation of the joints, but whether this is due to an autoimmune dysfunction (i.e. the body’s immune system attacking the tissues), or if there is one or several infections present that cannot yet be detected by the instruments of science, is unknown. Sciatica is irritation of the sciatic nerve, but again the underlying cause is often a mystery.
What is known is that certain exercises can help. To take two specifics, Tai Chi has been found to relieve arthritis, and certain Yoga postures can provide near-instant relief from an attack of sciatica.
Osteoporosis and Osteopenia
These are conditions characterised by loss of bone mineral density, most often in post-menopausal women, but also found in those who are treated with certain drugs, or who smoke or drink heavily. Regular weight-bearing exercise, such as Tai Chi and Yoga (both of which use your own body weight as resistance), has been found by researchers to be a factor in determining whether someone is likely to be affected by these conditions – those who exercise are much less likely to suffer from loss of bone density – and in one research study regular Tai Chi practice over a period of several months was found to increase bone density significantly in one group of women suffering from bone density loss.
Heart Disease, Stroke and Diabetes
Because exercise keeps the blood more fluid and expands the arteries (see ‘Circulation’ above), and because it helps to keep cholesterol levels balanced (see ‘cholesterol’ above), those who exercise regularly are far less likely to develop cholesterol build up and blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes. For people with diabetes this can be particularly important because poor circulation is one of the most damaging and prevalent factors of the condition.
Regular physical exercise can both prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and very markedly slow down its progression in those who already have it, research studies have shown. Dr Cyrus Raji from the University of Pittsburgh conducted some research which found that those who walked at least 10km per week were 50% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease at all. And a study from the University of Kansas School of Medicine showed that those Alzheimer’s patients who were fit showed four times less brain shrinkage than those who were not physically fit. Again, the reason for this may be connected to blood circulation and its increase to the brain when we exercise.
There are Lots of Ways to Exercise: Which is the Best?
All exercise can be good in moderation, and all exercise can be harmful if taken to obsessive extremes. But if you are planning to exercise for the health and fitness benefits, the chances are that you will come across two basic forms of exercise – aerobic and non-aerobic. Aerobic is to move in oxygen – long-distance running, dancing and walking are all aerobic exercises. Anaerobic includes weight-lifting and sprinting. Most exercises can be adjusted to be one or the other, and most also cross the boundary between the two. In a very broad sense, anaerobic concentrates on strength; aerobic burns fat.
But there are other considerations. Participating in aerobic activity increases overall energy, whereas certain anaerobic exercises can increase focus. Some people believe that aerobic activity will ‘wear them out’, help burn off excess energy, calm anxiety, and help them sleep better at night (if the activity is done several hours before bedtime, as aerobic activity done within a couple of hours of bedtime will make falling asleep more difficult). Others believe that aerobic exercise promotes and exacerbates any hyperactive tendencies. The truth is that there is no easy categorisation or ‘one size fits all’ solution, and the ‘trick’, if there is one, is probably to try to fit in a moderate amount of both aerobic and anaerobic exercise each week, and to find a comfortable and enjoyable balance that suits you.
The Bottom Line
Exercise is about both the present and the future. It will make you feel good right now, but perhaps even more importantly it will tip the odds against you getting Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, arthritis, and myriad other uncomfortable, painful, and even fatal conditions. There is no manual for eternal youth, but walking half an hour every day and fitting in a couple of swimming sessions every week will go a long way to keeping you fit, healthy and active for a long, long time.