Many people think of exercise as a way to ‘burn calories’ or ‘tone up.’ However, while your body will use more calories to fuel your muscles when you go on a run versus when you are sitting on the coach, calorie burning is not the greatest benefit of exercise. Getting your heart pumping and using your muscles has a myriad of other health benefits that go far beyond weight loss. Now, in this post I don’t differentiate between exercise and movement. Here we are really looking at the big picture of the benefits of moving our bodies, anything from weight lifting to a walk on the beach.
The benefits (beyond weight loss) of exercise and movement:
1. Stress reduction.
One of the pillars of health and vitality is decreasing stress. Now, there are different kinds of stress, which you can read about here. When you push your body physically, like doing interval training or weightlifting, you are creating hormetic stress in your body. However, there are a number of ways that movement decreases other types of damaging stress. First off, many forms of exercise act as a moving meditation. They require you to come into the moment to perform a certain task. Even if you tend to let your mind wander when you are jogging or swimming laps, your mind still needs to come into the moment more often to make sure that you don’t trip on the sidewalk or breathe in pool water. Coming into the present moment decreases the amount you ruminate on the things that are stressing you out. Also, movement lets your body metabolize and physically move stress out of your body. Stress increases the production of adrenalin in your system, and if you don’t move the excess adrenalin will continue to circulate and keep you stressed out. So, if you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, strap on your tennis shoes (or barefoot shoes, or heck, just go barefoot!) and take a jog around the block.
2. Boosts the ‘happy chemicals’ in your brain.
Endorphins! Dopamine! You have probably heard of the ‘runners high,’ which is that sweet burst of happy chemicals released in your brain once you hit mile two or so. Our brains reward us for movement because out bodies are designed to move. The happy chemicals are not released quite as quickly as when you bite into a piece of chocolate, but they are just as powerful. If you push through the first bit of feeling uncomfortable your brain will reward you with a chemical cocktail of feeling wonderful, which leads to decreased anxiety and depression, and increased happiness and sense of well being.
3. Improved self-confidence.
This is not just about looking good, but it is about feeling good. When you feel wonderful, confidence will emanate from your core. Also, seeing progress in your strength and endurance is a confidence booster. Taking care of your self and saying YES to your one precious LIFE is a confidence booster. When you can align your lifestyle with your deepest values, your confidence will increase. You will fall more in love with yourself and that can help keep you on the path to live a long and healthy life.
4. Boost in brainpower.
This one reminds my of an old a home video of me (remember VHS anyone?) when I was about 4 years old in my grandparents backyard. I had just swam across the pool, hopped out, and grabbed my jump rope. I was singing to my mom, while jump roping (backwards I may add), my A-B-C’s. At 4 I certainly didn’t realize that movement was helping me boost my ability to recall the building blocks of the English language. Everyone needs a boost in brainpower, from school age and through adult hood. If you are having a hard time finding a solution to something at work or at home, getting out for a walk or a game of tennis may help spark the inside you need.
5. Sharpen memory.
When I was memorizing lines for the countless scenes and plays during grad school, I would often take the script out with me for a walk while I read Shakespeare and Shaw in a low voice. I didn’t realize at the time the science behind it, but the movement improved my ability to recall the words the next day at rehearsal. According to Heidi Godman of Harvard Health, “The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.” So, moving your body leads to an increased ability to recall names, dates, and what you wanted to get at the farmers market.
6. Prevent memory decline.
Exercise will not cure Alzheimer’s, but it can prevent the degeneration of brain cells. As mentioned above, it can help stimulate growth factors in the brain and build new brain cells. In particular working out between ages 25 and 45 can boost the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, and important region for memory and learning. So much so that people who excise are 50% less likely to get dementia. So, really it is move it or lose it.
7. Increased relaxation and deeper sleep.
Sleep is so important to over all health (as I write a lot about). Another virtue of moving during the day is that you will sleep better at night. Think about when you were a kid, and you spent the day at the beach or at the park and played your self silly, that night you probably slept really well. The same is true for you now. When you move, your body temperature and your energy expenditure increases, which signals the bodies opposite reactions, to calm down and cool down, which triggers relaxation and restful sleep.
8. Get more done.
You may think that you are too busy to exercise, but the truth is you are too busy not to exercise. All of the brain stuff that I have talked about above applies here too. The increased function of your brain will allow you to handle everything on your plate, with greater focus and less ‘brain fog.’ You will also be able to tap into your creativity so that you can get things done in novel ways.
9. Inspire others.
We tend toward the habits of people who are closest to us. If you have friends and family members who are opt to take a hike after work instead of hit up happy hour, you will be more likely to take the hike. You have an incredible influence on those around you, and your choice to exercise and move will inspire those around you. If you have children this is especially true, as they are looking to you to model healthy behavior. If you make a habit of taking care of your body, people around you will be inspired to do the same for themselves.
10. Enjoy the outdoors.
Oh the great outdoors! It is not just wonderful to get outside, it is VITAL for our health. Exercise and movement in nature is a great way to enjoy this planet. If you live in a place of great natural beauty, you likely get a good dose of vitamin N(ature) on a regular basis. If you live in a city, there are still great opportunities to get outside. Check out the parks that are closest to you, or opt for a jog around a nearby track instead of on the tread mill. When you have the time, take a drive to the beach or a mountain and take a day hike. (There are so many benefits to nature, check out my posts on the benefits of getting out for further inspiration and information.)
There are so many benefits to moving your body far beyond weight loss. I hope this has inspired you to get out and move. I am ready to put on my shoes and head to the park!