Fitness and Your Health: The Physical, Mental, and Restorative Benefits of Exercise
Rebecca Robin, IIN Content Editor
Exercise is your body’s daily dose of medicine.
The rush of endorphins…clarity of mind and renewed focus…heart-pumping bursts of energy – sound familiar?
We’ve all experienced the immediate benefits that physical activity has on our bodies – improved mood, increased strength and stamina, and higher energy levels.
These positive and feel-good effects are backed by extensive research, driving the importance of making daily physical movement a habit to keep throughout your life. Regular exercise, no matter if done in big or small increments, can add up over time to substantial long-term benefits, such as preventing chronic diseases and promoting mental health and well-being.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise weekly. This amount is often split into 30-minute increments across five days and can include everything from a walk around the block to an intense cardio session. They also suggest including strength training activities at least twice weekly.
Due to the current situation, you may not be taking part in a lot of the regular physically active minutes you clock from simply walking to work or moving around the office. You also may not be able to attend your weekly yoga or HIIT class at a local studio. As tempting as it may be to spend this extra time on the couch, we encourage you to find new ways to exercise regularly and replace any missed physical movement as best you can.
We’ve detailed how consistent physical activity can positively impact the physical, mental, and restorative aspects of your life.
The physical health benefits of exercise are interconnected.
Engaging in physical activity impacts many, if not all, of your internal bodily systems that work together to keep you healthy and happy. All these systems are connected in intricate ways, but overall, physical activity is key to helping these systems function in harmony.
- Physical activity and strength training are important in helping the body maintain and build muscle mass. Resistance training initiates a process called muscle hypertrophy, where you actively break down muscle fibers to bind them together again to create muscle mass. This causes the release of anabolic (growth) hormones that allow our muscles to absorb amino acids and grow. Stronger muscles allow for increased mobility, proper respiration and digestion, and more.
- Strong muscles also mean stronger bones to move effectively. Our bone health shifts throughout different stages of our lives – factors like age and menopause are known to weaken bone density. Studies have shown that exercise and strength training can be effective in building bone density and preventing and treating osteoporosis as our bones are made of living tissues that build more cells in response to strenuous activity.
- Gaining muscle strength and endurance through exercise can also increase your flexibility and reduce chronic pain. It is a natural remedy that helps issues with posture, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other pains that may arise in your body. Consistent exercise can also affect weight management, which can minimize joint pain if a healthy weight is maintained.
- Researchers have found that physical activity can have both positive and negative effects on the strength of your immune system. The consensus is that as long as you do not stress your body or push it beyond its limits, physical activity can be helpful in strengthening your immune system’s ability to fight illness or infection. However, this requires you to listen to your body and refrain from taking on sudden vigorous training. It’s important to start slow and build yourself up to more rigorous or strenuous physical activity.
- Regular physical activity can help prime our immune systems for potential threats. This is likely due to increased circulation of cells and the release of immune messenger proteins as you work muscle cells. Physically active people also tend to maintain a healthy number of T lymphocyte cells in their immune systems, helping their bodies identify the risk of potential pathogens and cancers.
Respiratory and Cardiovascular
- Regular exercise lowers the risk of developing upper respiratory tract infections. Physical activity may aid in eliminating bacteria from the lungs and airways, reducing the chance of developing a cold or flu. Similar to the reaction that happens when you “break a fever,” a rise in body temperature from a jog outside may help your body fight infection or prevent bacteria from growing.
- As exercise increases blood flow and circulation, it helps your body feel more energized and alert. This benefit extends to sexual drive, activity, and satisfaction. A study found that 80% of males and 60% of females who exercised regularly rated their sexual desirability as above average in relation to those who were not as physically active. This sense of desirability is linked to better sexual performance and satisfaction.
- Physical activity, in general, can act as a stabilizer, lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow, and strengthening your heart muscle.
Improving Overall Well-Being by Preventing Chronic Disease
- Preventive healthcare is more important than ever, and exercise is part of the recommended management plan to prevent the risk of developing chronic conditions. Physical activity can help mitigate your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.
- Exercise may be able to increase your life span! A study in Preventive Medicine determined that physically active adults appeared to have biologically younger-looking cells. The molecular caps at the end of chromosomes, called telomeres, are known to become shorter with age as cells replicate. Those who engage in regular physical activity slowed their telomere shrinkage, appearing to have a “biological age” that was about nine years younger.
Exercise strengthens your mental health, cognitive functions, and creative processes.
Regular physical activity plays a major role in regulating brain processes and managing the release of neurotransmitters that help you function every day.
- A boost in mood is one of the more immediate benefits from exercise, and one that physically active people enjoy on a regular basis. Exercise is known to increase serotonin levels, helping your brain better regulate mood and appetite. It also sparks the release of endorphins, natural hormones released in the brain that promote feelings of happiness and well-being.
- One in five adults suffers from a mental illness, such as depression and anxiety. Studies suggest that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, alleviating symptoms of long-term depression and anxiety. Physical activity can also help lift your self-esteem and create a sense of accomplishment. It’s a chance for your body to learn how to effectively deal with stress and produce more of the neurotransmitters that fight pain, such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and endorphins.
- Studies have found that regular exercise can prevent cognitive decline, reducing the risk of developing brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. They found that physical activity prevents neural atrophy, or loss of neurons, in otherwise healthy adults. It also challenges one’s balance and muscle coordination, helping strengthen brain health and reducing the potential risks of developing these disorders.
- Exercise is also helpful in treating those who already have Alzheimer’s, preventing the progression of the disease by encouraging the production of new brain cells, or neurogenesis. Research shows that aerobic exercise, in particular, may help slow shrinkage in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that deals with memory.
- Your brain’s creative processes can benefit from physical activity, too! In addition to the hippocampus’s role in memory function, research has found that it is also responsible for helping people imagine new situations. The brain stores information, and consequently processes this information, and can make predictions for future events and possibilities. This is crucial in order to practice critical thinking and innovation throughout your lifetime.
- Even a quick walk around the block can stimulate creative thinking. It allows your brain a moment to clear the mind and recharge in order to approach a situation with fresh ideas. This can be particularly helpful when you’ve been inside for long stretches, providing a “mental break” before coming back to your work.
Exercise affects your ability to sleep soundly and properly recharge and restore.
A regular exercise routine will put your body on track to make the most of both waking and resting hours. It is a key component that can help you approach each day with a refreshed and rejuvenated mind-set.
- What goes up must come down! A heart-pumping workout typically causes a rise in your body temperature, allowing it to drop a couple of hours later and boost feelings of drowsiness. Your sleep patterns will thrive from a regular exercise routine as your body will become accustomed to de-stressing and unwinding at a certain time.
- Research suggests that the best times to exercise are either in the early morning or afternoon as late-night exercise can interfere with your body’s natural release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates your body’s sleep cycle. If you’re on a regular wake-and-sleep cycle, meaning you wake up with the sun and go to bed when it becomes dark, your body recognizes night hours as a time to begin secreting melatonin, and physical activity too late in the evening may alter your body’s natural circadian rhythm.
- A Mental Health and Physical Activity study found that people who participated in the national guideline of 150 minutes of physical activity per week found a 65% improvement in sleep quality. Another study found that exercise increased sleep satisfaction by increasing total sleep time, delaying REM sleep onset – the daydream-like state of sleep – and increasing slow-wave sleep, the deepest phase of the sleep cycle. Slow-wave sleep is the phase that helps with memory processing and consolidation.
- A regular exercise routine contributes to sleep homeostasis – a state of balance between waking and sleeping hours. Physical activity can give you extended energy throughout your day, resulting in better productivity and energy to do the things you enjoy. When you are satisfied and productive during waking hours, it contributes to your ability to recharge and restore energy as well.
Create a fitness routine that’s tailored to you.
Don’t overdo it. Remember that building up to a regular exercise routine is a marathon, not a sprint. Just as if you were training for an actual marathon, it’s best to start slow and build muscle memory when changing or adding exercises to create a routine that works for you. You should find a routine that you enjoy rather than latching on to a vigorous training session that you feel like you have to do.
Everything is best in moderation, and your fitness routine is no exception. There is no need to stress over counting every physically active minute or pushing your body past its limit. If you are the type of person who loves to challenge yourself with HIIT workouts or strength training, make sure to give your body a day or two to recover after intense physical activity. If you do not give your muscles and tendons the proper time to rest, it can result in fatigue, injury, or imbalanced hormones.
Each of us has individual needs, capabilities, and limits when it comes to exercise and fitness – we refer to this as bio-individuality, an IIN core concept that we come back to time and time again. The key is to create an exercise routine and schedule that nourishes and fuels you. Remember to treat your body with kindness and give it the fuel it needs!
Our Health Coach Training Program provides the tools and framework to help you find diet and lifestyle habits – including fitness routines – that work for your body and its unique capabilities.