Exercise as Medicine
Explore all that exercise can do beyond staying in shape and maintain your weight.
By Matt Bralick, FitMe Wellness
Of the myriad things the human body is miraculously able to do, sitting still for prolonged periods of time is not one of them! Our bodies were meant to stay in motion. But now, at the least physically active point in human existence, with just the touch of a screen, almost anything imaginable can be delivered to your doorstep.
Just 100 years ago, having to go to the store meant: Having to physically go there on foot, grab the item(s) off the shelves, talk to a real human to pay for the items, then traveling home with the items that you either had to carry or transport by cart, and finally unloading everything.
Though our lifestyle has changed dramatically, the human body has yet to adapt to being seated so frequently. This newly acquired sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, depression, anxiety, type-2 diabetes, and even certain cancers, including colon, breast, and uterine. Some of these effects can be countered by simply choosing to eat healthier. But even if you avoid the pitfalls of fast food and processed ready-to-eat meals, adequate physical activity is still needed to maintain your health.
Consistent exercise can help you stay in shape and maintain your weight, but the benefits extend far beyond just that. It can help improve the quality of your sleep, lower your bad cholesterol, reduce back pain, uplift those with depression, and even improve insulin sensitivity!
Regular exercise can help you fall asleep faster, get better sleep, and deepen your sleep. It helps to stabilize your circadian rhythms, leading to you feeling more alert during the day. Exercising around noon or a few hours before going to bed helps you relieve stress and lighten your mood. It has also has been shown to improve sleep for people with sleeping disorders, including insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. Just as exercising helps with your sleep, your sleep also helps the effectiveness of your exercise. Moderate exercise lasting 20 to 30 minutes, three or four times a week, will help you sleep better and give you more energy, which in turn helps your body exercise better!
Lack of physical exercise has been shown to be a major contributing factor to the onset of chronic illness. Research has shown that regular exercise stimulates enzymes that help move LDL, the bad cholesterol, from the blood to the liver for processing. The more you exercise, the more LDL the body will expel. In addition, exercise has been shown to increase the size of the protein particles that carry cholesterol through the blood; this is good because the smaller, denser particles can more easily squeeze into the linings of the heart and blood vessels to set up shop.
In a study of sedentary people who did not change their diet, those who got moderate exercise (the equivalent of 12 miles of walking or jogging per week) did lower their LDL somewhat, while those who did more vigorous exercise (the equivalent of 20 miles of jogging a week) lowered it even more. The people who exercised vigorously also raised their levels of HDL, the good kind of cholesterol that helps clear up the blood. However, it was found that it takes a good amount of high-intensity exercise to significantly change HDL; just walking is not enough. Those who showed the biggest improvement in their numbers were those who had the worst diet and exercise habits before adopting an exercise regimen, showing promise for increased improvement for those who also improved their diets at the same time.
Exercise has very distinct benefits to those who are diabetic. For those with type-1 diabetes, exercise can make it easier to control blood glucose levels because it increases insulin sensitivity. For those with type-2 diabetes, exercise can actually cause the muscles to utilize glucose without insulin, which in turn can cause blood glucose levels to go down. Even better yet, if you’re insulin-resistant, exercise actually makes your resistance go down, allowing cells to use glucose more effectively.
Both type-1 and type-2 diabetics are also more susceptible to developing blocked arteries, which can lead to heart attack. But as discussed earlier, exercise helps lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, making it even more important for those with diabetes to adopt and adhere to a regular exercise regimen!
One of the most common misconceptions about back pain is that rest and inactivity will cure what ails you. However, numerous studies have found that the sooner you start moving, even a little bit, or return to activities such as walking, the faster you are likely to improve.
If you can find comfortable positions and keep moving, you may not even need rest at all! In fact, when the body doesn’t move or bend, it loses muscle strength and flexibility. With bed rest, your body loses about 1 percent of your muscle strength each day, and you can lose 20 to 30 percent in just a week!
To help relieve back pain (and even help prevent it), try lifting light weights, yoga, walking on a treadmill, and water aerobics; these all activate the core lightly and help to find comfort and balance. The idea here is to avoid causing anymore pain or discomfort, so steer clear of exercises that flare up your back pain like sit-ups or explosive plyometrics. Something as simple as leg lifts, shoulder presses while lying on your back, or bicep curls while standing will also assist in loosening and strengthening the core muscles. Remember that finding comfortable positions to keep moving in is always better than stagnation to help alleviate pain and stimulate healing.
Exercise can also be a fantastic mood elevator. As you move and exert yourself physically, the body releases chemicals called endorphins. This chemical reaction is what many runners refer to as the “runner’s high.” However, strenuous exercise is not the only way to increase mood through activity.
Studies have shown that low-intensity exercise sustained over time spurs the release of neurotrophic proteins, or growth factors, which can cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. In people who are depressed, the area of the brain that controls mood tends to be smaller than in those without depression. Exercise helps support nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections; this can help relieve depression. •