There are so many benefits of exercise that it’s hard to know where to start. For me, improving strength and body composition are the least important. More important is the effect on mood, cognition and energy levels, while rejuvenating the brain and body.
We all know the dangers of living with chronically high stress levels - depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke to name a few. Exercise reduces stress in multiple ways. From a scientific viewpoint, exercise triggers the release of feel good compounds such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and endocannabinoids. It helps us sleep better. It takes the mind off the stressors, helping us achieve some mental space. It allows us to channel the stressful energies, the anger and frustration, into the exercise we’re doing so it’s no longer eating us up inside.
Exercise promotes an increase in BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) – a protein that stimulates neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells) and prevents the death of existing brain cells. Studies have shown that exercise improves focus, increases attention span, information processing speed, memory and decision making skills. It may also promote brain plasticity, but the jury is still out on that one.
Energy levels could be defined as part mood and part metabolism. We’ve already covered the improved mood part, so let’s look at metabolism. The expense of energy during exercise triggers the body to increase the number of mitochondria (the power generators) in cells. This not only means more energy the next time you exercise, but also an increase in general energy levels. Without regular exercise, this increase in metabolism does decrease over time – use it or lose it!
Back to the heart disease caused by chronic stress – exercise helps counter this directly by improving cardiovascular health. These improvements in cardiovascular health mean the body is both more efficient during exercise, and also able to perform with an increased output.
Exercise, particularly weight bearing exercise, increases the mass and density of bones. That makes strength training even more important as we age to prevent osteoporosis.
Strength training initiates a cascade of beneficial hormonal change in the body. It increases testosterone and human growth hormone to strengthen and rejuvenate the whole body. It improves insulin sensitivity for a healthier response to carbohydrates, eliminating the risk of type 2 diabetes. It also triggers the release of other anti-ageing hormones and amino acids such as melatonin, GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). These endogenously produced compounds are far more effective than supplementation.
Being able to put your mind into your body also means you're learning to listen to your body and how it feels. Learn when you can push yourself, or when you should take it easy and rest.
Exercise helps us develop a sense of mastery - knowing you can push yourself and overcome resistance to achieve your goals. You're prioritising your health while challenging your mind and body. Be proud of what you've achieved.
Moving the joints and muscles through their full range of motion keeps them supple. Learning how to perform complex movements, or just become more efficient in movement, increases coordination. Again, these become more important as we age.
And now the more obvious benefits –exercise increases the number and thickness of muscle fibres (myofibrils), along with the connective tissues (ligaments and tendons). The greater increase in strength, however, comes from an increase in signal strength from the brain to the muscles via the central nervous system - i.e. an increased connection between the mind and the body.
And coming in last of all, the most obvious benefit of exercise – exercise increases lean muscle tissue, while burning more calories and improving your hormonal profile meaning less adipose tissue. You guessed it, exercise makes you look and feel better!
Not convinced? If you’re not exercising, stop making excuses. Find something you love to do and do it! Sure the couch is comfy and it’s easier to sit and watch TV, but you’ll get into quickly and feel great afterwards.
If you need help getting started, contact me now