The Importance of Physical Activity Part II: Benefits Galore

Welcome back, Squares! Last week we kicked off this two-part series where we discussed just what physical activity is and how much we should be moving to achieve results. Today’s post will continue this topic, going into the various health benefits that can we can expect to see just from increasing our physical activity! From managing stress, to reducing disease risk, to increasing mortality, there’s a whole lot of good that comes with moving more.

Here we go!

Short of discovering the elixir of life, physical activity is one of the single most important things we can do for our health. Even just adding a 30 minute walk to your daily routine can result in significant changes. The good news is, nearly every person is capable of some degree of moderate-intensity physical activity. Walking, biking, swimming, mowing the lawn, hiking, and playing sports are all low impact, moderate-intensity activities to get you moving, even if you’re starting from the couch!

Remember, if you have a chronic health condition or any health concerns, always contact your physician before starting a new exercise regime. While cardiac events are very rare with physical activity, the risk increases when we suddenly become more active than usual. For instance, if you do not regularly exercise, start slowly and gradually increase your progress, as you could put yourself at greater risk by quickly jumping into vigorous-intensity activities.

Of course, all we hear about in the news are the bad things; the rare cardiac arrest that occurred during a cardio session or the weekend warrior that tore their ACL. These occurrences are made out to be much more common than they are because they’re all that’s reported. No head line ever will read “Man exercises, nothing happened, all healthy!” The bottom line is this: the health benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risks!

Stress Management and Mental Health

Many people still think of stress and mental health as an abstract idea, but the truth is, there are some very concrete processes at work.

When faced with a threat, our bodies undergo a series of physiological reactions designed to help us survive. Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can include blood vessel constriction, increased heart rate, increased respiration, and decreased digestive activity. Similarly, the endocrine system consists of glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream in response to stress. In the presence of a stressor, the pituitary gland and hypothalamus communicate to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland. ACTH then travels to the adrenal glands and triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal cortex. Cortisol enables the body to maintain steady supplies of blood sugar to help the body deal with prolonged stress.

While the body’s response to stress is designed to help a person survive when faced with a threat, prolonged activation of these systems can ultimately lead to a decline in a person’s health. For example, the release of cortisol enables a person to deal with the immediate threat, but this reaction suppresses the immune system and makes a person more open to illnesses [immunosuppression].

Physical activity and exercise have been demonstrated to promote positive changes in one’s mental health and ability to cope with stressful encounters; those who exercise have lesser rates of depression, negative affectivity, and anxiety. Exercise neutralizes the effects of psychological stressors on cardiac reactivity and dampens stressor-evoked increases in stress hormones [cortisol and adrenaline]. Exercise has also been found to reduce stress-induced immunosuppression. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and therefore reduces the risk of contracting an illness due to immunosuppression. Considering the seemingly profound effects of exercise on stress, movement has been conceptualized as a method to inoculate individuals against the throes of stressful experiences.

Reduced Risk for Cardiovascular Disease

Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death in the United States, and both are preventable through healthy lifestyle changes.
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the 5 major risk factors [along with high blood pressure, abnormal values for blood lipids, smoking, and obesity] for cardiovascular disease. Reducing risk factors, obviously, also reduces the risk of a cardiac event or stroke. Therefore, decreasing inactivity time and increasing physical activity can greatly reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Regular exercise has a favorable effect on many of the established risk factors for cardiovascular disease. For example, exercise promotes weight reduction and can help reduce blood pressure. Exercise can reduce “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood [the low-density lipoprotein [LDL] level], as well as total cholesterol, and can raise the “good” cholesterol [the high-density lipoprotein level [HDL]].

The guidelines we covered last week recommended at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week. By following these recommendations, you can greatly lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. Remember the dose-response relationship? More of a good thing will bring about more good results. You can further reduce your risk with increased physical activity beyond these guidelines.

Reduced Risk for Type II Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome

With diabetes and obesity rates at all-time highs across the country, most people are familiar with the basic concepts. Type II diabetes is the most common type of diabetes and occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin or when the pancreas stops producing enough insulin [the protein that signals glucose storage by muscles and liver to control blood sugar]. While exactly why this happens is unknown, environmental and lifestyle factors, such as excess weight gain and inactivity, seem to be contributing factors.

But what is metabolic syndrome? Metabolic syndrome is a condition in which you have some combination of too much visceral fat around the waist, high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol, high triglycerides, or high blood sugar. Two or more of these conditions occurring together significantly increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

As seen with cardiovascular disease, exercise has been shown to reduce high levels of LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol levels, as well as reduce weight and manage blood pressure. Therefore, regular physical activity can help to reduce your risk of Type II diabetes and Metabolic Disease as well.

Weight Management

Weight loss is one of the most common motivators for becoming physically active. It also tends to be the most frustrating. But weight management doesn’t have to be a complicated struggle. It’s actually quite a simple equation:

Calories Consumed=Calories Burned

Weight gain occurs when the calories you burn during activities of daily living and physical activity are less than the calories you consume through food or drink. Going the other way, this means weight loss is achieved when you burn more calories than you consume.

To maintain your weight, follow the physical activity guidelines as previously stated in Part I. Work your way up to 150 minutes of aerobic moderate-intensity physical activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, weekly. Strong scientific evidence shows that physical activity is key in helping to maintain weight, though the exact amount for each individual could vary. Because every person is different, everyone’s body will respond differently. Be sure to always listen to what your body is telling you [hunger, fatigue, energized] and adjust accordingly.

To lose weight and keep it off, exercise alone is not enough. You would need very high amounts of physical activity alone, unless you adjust your diet and reduce the amount of calories you consume. Getting to and staying at a healthy weight requires lasting, healthy lifestyle changes, including exercise and a healthy eating plan.

Increase Muscle and Bone Strength

As we age, routine wear and tear on our bodies begins to show. It is important to build strong bones, joints, and muscles while we’re able in order to protect them later in life. Our bones, joints, and muscles are the basis of our movement and support our bodies; if these systems degenerate or lose efficiency, we would not be able to perform our daily activities.

Research shows that aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening physical activity can slow the loss of bone density that comes with age, as well as keep our joints healthy through their range of motion and our muscles strong. Basically, any moderate-intensity, weight bearing exercise will achieve these goals. This could be walking, running, yoga, body weight exercises, or strength training with weights. Note that the best results in bone health come from weight bearing activities, so if this is your main focus, scale back on activities that do not fall under this domain, such as swimming, biking, and seated exercises.

Increase Functional Capabilities

With physical degeneration from inactivity comes functional limitations. Functional limitations are a loss of the ability to perform everyday activities, like climbing the stairs, grocery shopping, or even being a part of family activities.

Physically active individuals have a lower risk of functional limitations than people who are inactive. As we’ve just discussed, weight-bearing and muscle strengthening activities can keep our bones, joints and muscles healthy. When these systems are healthy and happy, our bodies are capable of going through their entire range of motion and performing at their full potential. Think of the our interlinked system of bones, joints, and muscles as the Tinman. When left to rust and inactive for a long period of time, our joints become stiff and difficult to move. But with a little grease and movement, our ability to perform physical tasks greatly improves!

Increase Longevity

So far, we’ve seen how physical activity increases our physical capabilities and reduces our risk for certain diseases, including cardiovascular, Type II Diabetes, and Metabolic Syndrome. Put all together in the big picture, this means physical activity can actually reduce our risk of dying early due to these health complications!

Only a few lifestyle changes have as large an impact on our health as physical activity. Those who are physically active and meet the activity guidelines have a 40% lower risk of dying early than those who are inactive [active less than 30 minutes a week].

You do not have to perform high volumes or vigorous-intensity activities to reduce your risk of premature death, or see any of these health benefits, for that matter. You can put yourself at a lower risk for early death, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, simply by moving more!

You don’t have to be an athlete to exercise and reap the benefits of physical activity, you don’t have to look a certain way or act a certain way. Each individual is entitled to the right to make healthy lifestyle choices and has the freedom to take their health into their own hands. Everyone can gain health benefits from physical activity. Whether that’s going for a walk or practicing yoga, hitting the gym for a strength training circuit or hauling firewood, all you have to do is move!

If something in this post struck your fancy that you’d like to hear more about, or have any other ideas for new posts, please drop a comment or send me a message!

Interesting Links:
Learn more about the connection between exercise and cardiovascular risks from the CDC

Learn more about the symptoms and causes of metabolic syndromeSee what the CDC has to say about balancing diet and exercise

Read more about weight bearing exercise and their effects on bone density and functional capabilities

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