The (not so obvious) benefits of exercise…

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In my experience, one of the most common reasons we’re motivated to exercise is aesthetics. Yep – shed a few kilos of fat, tone-up those flabby areas, fit into our ‘skinny jeans’ or look good on that beach holiday. While it can be a positive thing to have a goal, the downside of this kind of superficial/external motivation is that it’s more of a whim than a long term need. At the end of the day, is it really enough to make you change your entire lifestyle to achieve?

Whilst caught up in the frenzy of numbers on the bathroom scales and the profile of our belly in the mirror, sometimes we miss the other far more important benefits of living a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular, consistent exercise. I’ve known many individuals throw their arms up in the air in despair, claiming not to be getting any benefit at all from exercising, simply because the scales are not moving as quickly as they’d like. At times like these, it’s important to be aware of the many benefits of exercise and view the aesthetic results for what they are … a pleasant bonus!

The evidence is overwhelming: A body needs physical activity to stay lean and healthy

Fat burning: the effects of exercise are not as simplistic as ‘calories in vs calories burned’. You cannot out-run or out-train a poor or excessive diet. However, there are many physiological benefits activated by regular exercise, all of which assist your body in burning fat more effectively…

Increases insulin sensitivity: Muscles are the engines in your body that burn calories and make you move. And just like any engine that burns fuel to make it go (such as a car burning petrol), muscles need fuel too. That fuel is fat and carbohydrate (glucose). During exercise, the demand for fuel increases and the body responds accordingly. Glucose stored in the muscle is burned very quickly.  At about the same time, glucose stored in the liver is released into the bloodstream (like fast fuel injection). Fat is released from special cells called adipocytes (fat storage cells). This fat along with glucose makes its way through the bloodstream to the muscles to be used for fuel. Once the fuel reaches the muscle, it must enter through special pathways so that the muscles can use it for energy.

On the wall of every muscle cell are special receptors, like doors, that allow glucose to pass from the bloodstream to the muscle. These doors do not open unless they are ‘unlocked’ by insulin. The good news is that exercise has an insulin-like effect, making insulin work better in your body. During exercise, the doors swing open easily, allowing more glucose to enter the muscle to be burned up for energy.

Sometimes blood glucose continues to drop after exercise. That is because the glucose in the muscle that was used at the beginning of exercise needs to be replaced. The muscles, all revved up from exercise, continue to take glucose from the bloodstream to replace what was lost.

Increased Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR):

Our BMR is the calories we burn at rest. If you lay still for 24 hours, you burn a certain number of calories a day to keep your heart beating and sustain life. This BMR is generally around 75% of the total calories we use in a day, so it’s pretty significant. It is determined largely by our lean body weight (muscle tissue). The more muscle (density, tone, strength), the higher your BMR. Conversely, should you feel your exercise regime is ‘not working’ and become inconsistent, you risk a rapid loss in lean muscle tissue and a consequent decrease in BMR. Whilst you may remain the same ‘weight’, or even lose weight, you’re actually getting fatter as your body composition changes in the wrong direction (Less muscle, more fat).

The EPOC effect: Following high intensity interval training the body enters a state known as ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption’, or EPOC. After you finish your workout, your body will be working overtime for up to 24 hours in order to restore your body back to its resting state. This means you will be burning energy/kilojoules at a much higher rate, even whilst sedentary.

Protection against disease: regular exercise can reduce our risk of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, certain cancers (colon, breast), type-2 diabetes and depression.

Joint health and inflammation

Joints require motion to stay healthy. Inactivity causes joints to stiffen and the adjoining tissue to weaken. Building strength and ‘tone’ in muscles surrounding our joints allows that ‘tension’ in our muscles to pull pressure away from the joints, resulting in less compression and friction. Conversely, allowing muscles to deteriorate can lead to permanent joint damage over time.

Bone health and balance

Weight-bearing exercise is very beneficial for bones in people of all ages. This approach applies tension to muscle and bone, and the body responds to this stress by increasing bone density, in young adults by as much as 2 – 8% a year. Careful weight training can also be very beneficial for elderly people, particularly women. In addition to improving bone density, weight-bearing exercise reduces the risk of fractures by improving muscle strength and balance, thus helping to prevent falls.

Back pain

People who do not exercise regularly face an increased risk for low back pain, especially during times when they suddenly have to perform stressful, unfamiliar activities. These activities may include lifting children, gardening, digging, or moving heavy items.

Lack of exercise leads to the following conditions that may threaten the back:

  • Hamstring inflexibility may alter the pivot point in general movement, causing you to compensate by bending from your lower back rather than your hips. This repetitive strain can lead to pressure on discs and consequent injury.
  • Tightness through the hip flexor muscles (from sitting for prolonged periods) can also contribute to lower back pain and eventual disc damage.
  • General muscle inflexibility can restrict the back’s ability to move, rotate, and bend, forcing unnecessary pressure on surrounding joints.
  • Weak core muscles can increase the strain on the back and can cause an abnormal tilt of the pelvis (hip bones).
  • Weak back muscles may increase the load on the spine and the risk of disk compression.
  • Carrying excessive body fat puts more weight on the spine and increases pressure on the vertebrae and discs.

Effect of Exercise on Cancer

A number of studies have indicated that regular exercise may reduce the risk of breast, colon, and possibly prostate cancers.

Studies confirm that exercise significantly reduces the risk of colon cancer (by up to 50%). Exercise also decreases the risk of breast cancer in pre and post-menopausal women by up to 30%.

Low intensity exercise has a protective effect against colon cancer, according to studies, including the Nurses Health Study and the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II. People with colon cancer who exercise may reduce their risk of a recurrence.

Exercise also has a beneficial effect on people receiving treatment for cancer. Aerobic and resistance training can reduce fatigue in patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer. Fatigue is a common side effect of such treatments.

Effects on the Gastrointestinal Tract

Moderate regular exercise may reduce the risk for some intestinal disorders. These disorders include ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion, and diverticulosis. Older people who exercise moderately may have a lower risk for severe gastrointestinal bleeding.

Effects on Neurological Diseases and Mental Decline

Studies have shown that regular exercise helps reduce one’s risk for memory loss. Epidemiologic studies have found an association between increased exercise and slower rate of functional decline in older adults.

People with existing neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, should be encouraged to exercise. Specialized exercise programs that improve mobility are particularly valuable for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Patients with neurological disorders who exercise experience less stiffness, as well as reduction in, and even reversal of, muscle wasting. In addition, the psychological benefits of exercise are extremely important in managing these disorders.

Effects on Emotional Disorders

Some research has suggested that exercise may have antidepressant effects. Although there is little evidence that exercise can correct major depression, a number of studies have suggested benefits in mild to moderate depression in adults. Research findings include:

  • Just 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week was as effective as medication in relieving symptoms, and reducing relapse, in many patients with mild-to-moderate depression.
  • Teenagers who are active in sports have a greater sense of well-being than their sedentary peers. The more vigorously they exercise, the better their emotional health.
  • Physical inactivity is strongly linked to depression in children 8 – 12 years of age.
  • Exercise decreases some of the most troublesome emotional symptoms of menopause. Women who exercise during menopause showed less anxiety, stress, and depression than inactive women with menopause did.

Exercise’s Effects on Diabetes:

Moderate aerobic exercise can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes.

Exercise has positive benefits for those who have diabetes. It can lower blood sugar levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and strengthen the heart. Strength training, which increases muscle and reduces fat, may be particularly helpful for people with diabetes.

In conclusion…the next time you become frustrated with your lack of ‘results’ on the scales, remember all of the above health benefits of exercise and remember to take a long term, holistic approach. Exercise (and diet!) is not something we do for a short stint to reshape our backside, it needs to become part of our general body maintenance. You don’t necessarily ‘see’ a result from brushing your teeth everyday, but you continue to do it as you know it is a significant part of care and maintenance. Regular exercise is no different.

 

Donna Aston - Author

Nutritionist Certified Fitness Trainer Author of five best-selling health & fitness books Emotional Intelligence Certified Practitioner (Genos) Managing Director: Aston & Co. Pty. Ltd. Fitness advisor: Prevention Australia Magazine & SEN radio CIRQ acrobatic master trainer

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