We all know that taking regular exercise is good for us, but do you know why? What happens within the body, during and after exercise and why should we do it regularly? Why is it so hard to get started?
What is exercise?
Here is a recent definition, and I love the fact that it includes the word wellness:
"Exercise is certain bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness”
Movement is a fundamental foundation of optimal health and well-being, and a lack of exercise will lead to poor health and creates a bodily environment in which diseases can manifest. Poor movement affects all our body systems, including the Digestive, Immune, Circulatory, Respiratory, Endocrine (Hormonal), Nervous, Urinary and Musculoskeletal Systems. Inactive people are twice as likely to develop heart disease, and they will have more doctor visits and take more medications.
- Disease Prevention
o Exercise helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases (heart diseases)
o Type 2 Diabetes (lowers blood sugar and insulin levels)
- Improvement in strength and flexibility, enabling better movement
o Muscles and bones are strengthened due to the body adapting because of stress on the body’s muscular and skeletal systems (e.g., through lifting weights)
o Weight-bearing exercise increases bone density, which is particularly important for women who are in the pei/menopause phase of life when bone density starts to reduce because of lowering estrogen levels, and there is a risk of osteoporosis.
- Supports healthy ageing
o Regular exercise improves skin health because it increases the production of natural antioxidants which help protect skin cells.
o Exercise stimulates blood flow to the skin, whilst regular exercise also slows DNA ageing and, hence, delays skin ageing
- Contributes to weight loss, control, and management
o It can help to balance energy in (the food/drink we consume) versus energy out (energy expended through metabolism and activity)
o It is important to know that a lot of other factors are also part of weight control
- It can make you happier
o Exercise can reduce anxiety and depression
o When we exercise endorphins are released which helps to reduce pain
o If we exercise within a group, we feel a sense of community and friendship
o It improves mood and vitality
- Increases energy levels and endurance
o The number of mitochondria which are the cell structures which create energy (ATP), increases the more we exercise.
- Exercise can help to reduce pain
o Through movement, blood circulation (arterial and venous) increases, which in turn promotes better nutrient delivery to tissues and removes pain-inducing chemicals and toxins from tissues.
- Enhances body detoxification
o Exercise supports detoxification by optimizing liver cell activity, which enhances the elimination processes required to expel toxic materials through the body by increasing sweating, exhaling, and promoting bowel movement
History of exercise
Exercise has always been part of life, right back to 3300 BC when yoga was used in India to support mental and spiritual health and to align the body, mind, and soul. In recent years, yoga has been adapted and adopted worldwide for its many benefits to health and well-being.
If we look at 1000 BC, exercise was used in the military in ancient Persia, where it was called “Persian Zurkhaneh”, or “house of strength”, which was an institution of mental and physical training.
Around 800-600 BC, the Panhellenic games were held in Ancient Greece. During the peak of Sparta’s reign, boys aged 7 had to begin intense physical training to become warriors, and thankfully girls were made to train alongside the boys (although the goal was to develop healthy mothers of warriors).
This period of history is where the Olympic games were founded, which was part of the Panhellenic games. They held 4 primary athletic festivals around 776 BC, over 4 years which was called the Olympiad, in a 4-year repeating cycle. Year 1 was the Olympic Games, year 2 the Isthmian & Nemean Games, Year 3 the Pythian Games and Year 4 the Isthmian & Nemean Games. This is the history of why the Olympics are held every 4 years.
What’s going on in the body when we exercise?
Well, a lot…but here are some important things you may not know, which might help kick-start you into getting moving.
Aerobic demand increases the demand on the heart to pump blood and feed the cells with oxygen. This process increases the delivery of nutrients to tissues, speeds up the waste process of the blood (carbon dioxide and others), builds cardiac heart muscle, and increases the body’s ability to exercise for longer and higher intensities.
All our body cells rely on the constant delivery of oxygen and with regular exercise, the lungs become more efficient at exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, and therefore when you take on any kind of training program, e.g., Couch to 5 K run, you can go from zero to 5K in 12 weeks.
Regular exercise improves cognitive function, stress coping and information processing. New nerve pathways are created which enables us to adapt to challenges. Breathing deeply stimulates the vagus nerve, putting our bodies back into “rest and digest” mode, instead of “fight or flight”.
Exercise increases muscle size, strength, and endurance which in turn means joints are better supported.
Exercise regulates hormones such as testosterone, insulin, and growth hormone, which help maintain the integrity of muscle, bone, and connective tissue. It also makes body cells more responsive to the hormone insulin, therefore, it is crucial when supporting an individual with insulin resistance. Exercise stimulates thyroid gland secretion and so is effective for cases of an under-active thyroid. It has also been shown that exercise helps regulate melatonin levels (increased at night), which can promote better quality sleep, not to mention how exercise can help you drop off to sleep if you feel tired after exercising.
This body system needs exercise to regulate itself because it doesn’t have a pump such as the heart. Movement + diaphragmatic breathing moves lymph around the body, via lymphatic vessels to pass it through the filters or lymph nodes. A good working lymphatic system is crucial for good health and immunity.
Moderate exercise boosts our immune system by boosting the production of immune-fighting cells, which engulf microbes. High-intensity exercise when feeling unwell will have the opposite effect since cortisol (stress hormone) is produced causing the immune system to be suppressed.
Now you can understand how exercise and movement have a positive impact on all areas of the body systems.
8 tips to consider when starting to exercise
Fundamentally, if you’ve been putting it off, the only way to start exercising is, to be honest about what is holding you back. It’s very easy to tell ourselves we are too busy, too tired, or too distracted, but all these things boil down to priority setting. If you prioritize yourself, and genuinely want to feel better, physically, and mentally, stronger, fitter, and healthier, you can overcome the barriers that are preventing you from exercising.
Here are some other tips:
1. Decide based on a form of exercise that you know you will really enjoy, otherwise, you will lose interest quickly. If you don’t like running, don’t try a couch to 5K! Think back to what kinds of things you loved doing as a kid, for me it was swimming and tennis - can you incorporate some of those things through a social fitness group, for example?
2. Joining a club or team sport will ensure you keep going, especially if you buy a membership. Team sports are a really good way to adhere to a commitment because you get to meet new people and socialize and will want to go back again.
3. Make sure what you choose has the right level of impact to suit you, and any underlying conditions you may be impacted by.
4. Work out how much time can you realistically commit to it, each week. Be honest, and try not to set expectations too high, otherwise, you may feel disappointed if you don’t reach your goal. It’s better to start out 2 – 3 times a week and increase if you can later.
5. Think about ways of integrating movement, steps, or exercise into your daily routine, e.g., walk or cycle to the shops/school/work, take the stairs and not the lift, maybe you could jog back home after walking the children to school.
6. Write down the benefits you are going to see and feel and keep the list somewhere you can see it, which will help to keep your goals in mind. Emotional goals are very strong motivational factors.
7. Consider sleep/wake times – this is where most people don’t understand the need to make changes to their sleep routine too. E.g., if the only time you can fit in a 30 mins walk/jog is at 6 am, but you typically go to sleep at midnight, you may need to work on winding down earlier and adjusting your sleep patterns. You’ll feel better overall anyway once you get into a new routine – moderate exercise + 7-9 hours of sleep will make you feel a lot better.
8. I find it easier to set myself shorter-term goals and then review my progress and enjoyment levels, e.g., tell yourself you’re going to run 3 x a week for 30 minutes, for 1 month. Then review how you feel, your fitness levels and if you have been enjoying it. Then you can mix it up and make changes – with different routes, speeds, days, and frequencies. If you aren’t enjoying it, don’t be afraid to change and try something different. The main thing is you are doing something, regularly.
Movement and exercise are a foundation of good health and well-being and date back centuries as far back as 3300 BC. Our ancient ancestors recognized the importance of physical fitness, with yoga, and the founding of the Olympic games. Exercise and movement have a positive impact on all our body systems, and a lack of regular exercise leads to disease in the body, e.g., diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Being honest with ourselves about what is holding us back, and prioritizing our health and well-being is the only way to get started.
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