Exploring the Science-Backed Benefits of Regular Physical Activity
by Steve Theunissen on Mar 26, 2021
“Eating alone will not keep a man well. He must also take exercise.” - Hippocrates
With those two simple sentences, the father of medicine summed up everything we need to know about staying healthy. It’s all about what we eat and how we move. For 2400 years, people generally followed through on Hippocrates’ advice in order to stay healthy. Doctors would advocate portion control and exercise to stay in shape. However, there was a marked shift from health prevention to ill-health treatment in the early 20th century. One consequence of this was that exercise was no longer promoted as the golden standard for health.
Over the last hundred years, the mainstream focus on exercise has been on its cosmetic benefits - the ability to put on muscle or lose fat. Fortunately, a raft of recent research has verified the ancient wisdom of Hippocrates. In this article, we consider the many ways that exercise can improve your life.
Anxiety & Stress Reduction
Exercise can help to reduce stress and anxiety before it turns into depression. The feel-good endorphins produced by just one session of aerobic exercise can decrease tension, lift and stabilize your mood and improve sleep.
Stress and anxiety can make you feel helpless and at the mercy of external forces. Exercise, however, is empowering, giving you a sense of accomplishment that boosts self-esteem.
Exercise encourages the body to increase its production of natural mood boosting chemicals called endorphins. At the same time, it suppresses the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which put us in a bad mood. A recent study with a sample size of 1.2 million people, found that those who exercised regularly had 1.5 fewer poor mental health days than those who did not.
Regular aerobic exercise helps to combat coronary artery disease due to its ability to deliver oxygen to the heart, as well as by improving lung function. A study presented to the 2009 congress of the European Association of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation suggests that a moderate, supervised exercise program can improve the function of the cardiovascular system.
Physical activity raises the heart rate and lowers the risk of stroke. It does this by reducing the likelihood of incurring high blood pressure and heart disease, which are its two greatest risk factors.
Because exercise strengthens the heart, it is able to pump more blood with less effort. Aerobic exercise also increases the body’s oxygen consumption. The heart and circulatory system pump out more oxygenated blood to meet this increased need. This makes exercise the best way to bring down your blood pressure level.
Regular exercises will increase HDL, or good, cholesterol, while decreasing LDL, or bad, cholesterol. Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol are caused by a sedentary lifestyle, a diet high in saturated fats and being overweight. Exercise stimulates the enzymes that help move LDL from the blood to the liver to be excreted from the body. The more you exercise, the more LDL your body gets rid of.
Bones, Joints & Muscle
Exercise strengthens the muscles around your joints, improves flexibility, reduces muscular pain, eases soreness and provides you with more energy. It also keeps your cartilage, which is the tissue that covers the ends of bones in a joint, in healthy condition. It does so by stimulating the production of fluid around the joint.
People who are physically fit are also at a reduced risk of muscle, bone and joint disorders. Studies have even shown that people with fibromyalgia can find relief from exercise. The ability of exercise to increase the body’s production of endorphins and chemicals that boost mood and decrease pain has been shown to reduce the constant pain associated with the condition.
Our bones need to be stressed in order to become stronger. The constant pounding that you get with such high impact dynamic activity as running will help to enhance bone mineral density. A comparative study by the University of Missouri showed that running builds stronger spines than non-weight bearing activities such as cycling, swimming or rowing. Another study found that one third of fractures suffered by older men could be prevented if they could be persuaded to exercise 3 times per week for 30 minutes per session.
Exercise can also help bring relief for the many people who suffer back pain. People who follow a fitness routine that provides aerobic conditioning, exercise to strengthen the muscles of the back, and stretch the back, are able to stimulate healing and lessen the likelihood of future back pain episodes.
Regular physical activity is also very beneficial for the digestive system. It accelerates breathing and heart rate, which help to stimulate intestinal contractions and digestive enzyme production. The more efficient these contractions are, the faster ingested food is able to travel to the large intestine. The stimulated activity of the intestinal muscles that exercise brings about also helps food travel more quickly to the colon.
Exercise will improve overall health and immune response. The weight loss that comes with regular exercise decreases the chance of getting heartburn and helps with digestion by limiting the secretion of stomach acid.
Exercise, though physically taxing when you’re doing it, will boost your post workout energy levels. Numerous studies have found that regular exercise reduces feelings of fatigue, both in healthy people and those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome.
The combination of healthy eating and regular exercise are, just as Hippocrates advised 2,500 years ago, the keys to optimal health and illness prevention. In this article we have focused on many science based benefits of exercise that go beyond losing weight and building muscle. Use those benefits to motivate you to maintain consistency with your exercise program, knowing that it's the best thing you could be doing for both your body and your mind.