You may have thought to yourself at some point, “okay, I hear a lot about how I ‘should’ be exercising… but exactly why is exercise important for my daily life?”
It’s a good question to ask. In recent years, there’s been increased acceptance that various forms of exercise, such as cycling, walking, running, yoga, swimming (and many more) all present health benefits that a lot of us would like to tap into. For that reason, in addition to social media and the rise of ‘fitness’ influencers, the fitness industry has ballooned to a more than $100 billion valuation globally, with no signs of slowing.
But exactly how do those health benefits come about? And what role can exercise play when it comes to our mental wellbeing?
Why is exercise important for physical health?
- Exercise combats health conditions and diseases
Though, psychologically speaking, we often associate diabetes, heart disease, and cancer with long-off ailments reserved for older generations, it is important to note that the choices we make now contribute to our body’s health later down the line.
Now, exercise isn’t a one-stop-shop solution of course, diet and genetics (in addition to socioeconomic factors) also play key roles in how well our body responds to measures we take today, but evidence suggests that lack of physical activity “is a primary cause of chronic disease.” Regular exercise has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, heart health, and body composition, while also decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Specifically, Mayo Clinic reports that no matter what your current weight is, being regularly active increases your levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – aka “good cholesterol” and decreases triglycerides. This means your blood is more likely to flow smoothly, decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Here’s a quick rundown of just a few health implications regular exercise can help protect you against:
- Metabolic syndrome
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Many types of cancer
- Exercise supports a healthy weight and metabolism
There appears to be unanimous consensus that exercise is helpful for not only initial weight loss in those with excess body fat, but for maintaining weight loss through burning the health-damaging visceral fat, while building and preserving valuable lean muscle mass. It can aid in creating a moderate calorie deficit, which encourages sustainable weight loss, as well as increasing metabolism (which affects how many calories you burn in a day, even if you’re sitting down). So just how much exercise should you shoot for per week? Well, for “substantial health benefits” the USDA physical activity guidelines recommends at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 minutes to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (or an equivalent mix of both). But what is aerobic exercise? Essentially, this is anything that gets your heart rate up. It can involve taking brisk walks, running, cycling, swimming, spinning, high-intensity circuit training, and way more.
From there, the USDA also suggests engaging in anaerobic exercise, otherwise known as a weighted workout, which is best for building muscle, reducing insulin resistance, and increasing metabolism. This may sound intimidating at first, especially to those who may not have exercise already incorporated into their daily routine, but weighted exercise can be accessible and customizable depending on your goals, abilities, and any potential injuries. For instance, jump-roping is a fun (and inexpensive) way to implement anaerobic exercise into your morning routine; you may also want to check out weightlifting (there are plenty of resources detailing alternatives to popular poses for those with knee injuries, such as a wall pose as opposed to the traditional squat pose).
Just remember: the best type of exercise is that which you enjoy. For instance, you could listen to your favorite podcast while walking a mile around your neighborhood a few times a week, take a weekly spin class (and build a community there too!), or bicycle to and from work when the weather is nice. The most sustainable exercise you can find is one that fits with your routine, and matches your interests – whatever those may be.
Can Exercise Offer Benefits To Your Mental Health?
- Exercise Helps Prevent Neurodegenerative Diseases
It’s important to note here that everyone is different. However, by and large, data seems to indicate that exercise is good for your brain on more than one level.
For instance, a review of 75 studies found that exercise may trigger “adaptive mechanisms which represent an important non-pharmacological strategy to improve resilience to Alzheimer’s disorder.” This is because factors relating to neurodegeneration and dementia development, seem to be disrupted with regular exercise – to such an extent that the results from 11 studies indicated if engaging in regular exercise, your risk of developing Alzheimer’s was reduced by 45%.
Interestingly, scientists aren’t certain on the reason behind the ‘why’ here – some potential theories include: since exercise increases heart rate, this promotes blood flow and oxygen to your brain, which stimulates the production of hormones that enhance brain cell growth. Another theory suggests that exercise reduces oxidative stress and inflammation, which in turn promotes positive changes to brain structure and function. Finally, exercise has been shown to have an effect on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning!
Whatever the exact concoction of underlying factors may be, the scientific community is pretty united on one front: exercise is good for your brain function long-term.
- Exercise Reduces Anxiety and Depression (and Helps You Sleep Better)
Rewinding the clock a little bit, let’s investigate how exercise has the potential to improve your mental health as soon as the next couple of weeks.
Harvard Health decided to deep dive into the question of how exercise can relieve anxiety, and they discovered the following:
- The act of exercise distracts you from the thing you’re anxious about
- Moving your body reduces muscle tension
- Increase in heart rate contributes to changes in brain chemistry, which increases the availability of anti-anxiety neurochemicals (such as serotonin, GABA, BNDF, and endocannabinoids)
- Exercise activates the parts of your brain responsible for executive function, while regulating the amygdala (the part that is in charge of fear, threats, and survival)
Though Harvard couldn’t identify exactly how much exercise you need to see reduction in anxiety, a meta-analysis in the journal of Anxiety-Depression signaled that individuals who report high levels of physical activity were “more protected against developing anxiety symptoms than those who reported low physical activity.”
A similar trend seems to hold true when discussing the impact of exercise on mood and depression. In a small study of 24 women who had been diagnosed with depression, researchers found that “exercise of any intensity” improved mood and depressive symptoms. On the reverse side, in a systematic review of 19 studies, researchers concluded that when people who do regularly engage in exercise stop (even for a few weeks), they experience “significant increases in symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
Why is exercise so powerful for helping relieve depression, then? Well, Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School was careful to point out exercise isn’t a catch-all solution – things like diet, biology, and experience all influence someone’s mental health. Specifically, while for some people it “works as well as antidepressants,” exercise by itself isn’t enough for those suffering from severe depression. But for those of whom it does work – the reason is likely physiological.
For instance, high intensity exercise is known to release endorphins, a feel good chemical that results in “runner’s high.” For those who prefer regular low-intensity exercise, this triggers the release of neurotrophic proteins, which cause nerve cells to grow (particularly in the hippocampus, which is often smaller in those suffering from depression) and make new connections.
Finally, we want to touch on exercise’s impact on your sleep. Johns Hopkins Medicine recently reported that “based on available studies, we have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.” Now, to unlock the benefits of exercise in this respect, you may need to be careful what time you choose to do a workout: some people find that if they exercise immediately before bed, they can’t get to sleep. This is likely because of two things:
- Aerobic exercise causes the body to release endorphins
- Though this is 100% a good thing normally, these “feel good chemicals” aren’t always a recipe for immediate sleepiness, so it’s best to let them “wash out” and give your brain a chance to wind down before bed. Ideally, refrain from exercising 1-2 hours before bed.
- Keep in mind that everyone is different, so test out exercising at different times to see what results in the best sleep for you!
- Exercise raises your core body temperature
- According to Johns Hopkins, an elevation in core body temperature signals to the body that it’s time to wake up. Conversely, a decline in core body temperature signals sleepiness.
So if you do want to tap into the benefits of exercise for a better night’s sleep, the trick is to probably schedule your workout for the morning or afternoon. Experts believe that those who engage in at least 30 minutes of “moderate aerobic exercise” may see a difference in sleep quality as soon as that same night. As such, if you struggle with insomnia or anxiety before bed – give exercising in the day (for at least 30 minutes) a go for the potential to see immediate results.
To wrap up, we hope you now have a much better understanding of why exercise is important, and how you can tap into the social, psychological, and physical benefits it offers.
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.