It works like magic, yet it’s scientifically proven in study after study. It’s medicine prescribed by your doctor, yet it’s fun. It’s astonishingly powerful, yet it’s all natural with no added sweeteners. And it’s ridiculously simple — yet it’s not always easy.
“It” is exercise, and it’s all these things and more.
Moving your body can transform you from your head to your heart and down to the very tips of your toes. Human beings were made to move, and activity keeps us healthy and spurs our growth, including our brain’s development.
The reverse is also true, however: Not moving can undermine our health. We need to move.
Ironically, though, you may want to be sitting down to hear all the good news about physical activity.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it lowers our risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, colon and breast cancer, depression, and general premature death.
There are more subtle benefits to moving, too. In fact, at EL, we report on new research findings about the effects of physical activity on various parts of the body in almost every issue. So we’re pulling as many of them together as possible here in one place as inspiration.
Once you read this, you won’t want to stay sitting.
Brain & Mental Health
Moving your body improves your gray matter, making you smarter, happier, and more resilient. In fact, some progressive scientists believe building muscles and conditioning your heart and circulatory system are side effects: Exercise is really about your brain.
“The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best,” says John Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “The point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.” Here’s how:
- Heightens alertness and perception. The brain is all about communication. It’s composed of 100 billion neurons that confer with each other via neurotransmitters, governing every thought and action. And exercise boosts these neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine, which sparks attention, perception, motivation, and arousal; serotonin, which directs signals that influence mood, impulsivity, anger, and aggression; and dopamine, which governs attention and learning, plus our sense of contentment and reward.
- Reinforces movement and coordination. As we move, our brains learn how to move better the next time. Exercise stimulates the cerebellum, which coordinates all the body’s motor functions, like standing upright, dunking a basketball, shooting a hockey puck, and performing a plié.
- Enhances attention and concentration. Our brains become more active when we are active; this causes neurons to fire in unison, creating brain waves. Using electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring to track electrical pulses, researchers discovered that exercise intensifies brain-wave amplitude and frequency, and more beta waves are associated with a more alert state.
- Aids learning and memory. Making new neurons — a process called neurogenesis — is crucial for long-term memory. In a 2016 report published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers conducted MRI scans of cross-country runners and identified “significantly greater connectivity” between parts of their brains associated with attention, decision-making, multitasking, processing sensory input, and memory, compared with a control group of nonrunners.
- Supports mental health. “Going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters [serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine],” says Ratey. In the process, exercise helps our brains balance hormones. He believes that, along with alleviating depression, this harmonizing of our hormones also inoculates us against toxic stress and eases anxiety. “Keeping your brain in balance can change your life,” he says.
- Protects cognitive health. Physical activity induces the brain to create enzymes that chew up the amyloid beta-protein plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease, while also reducing inflammation. Exercise — along with lifestyle changes such as solid nutrition and quality sleep — may actually help keep that plaque at bay and slow cognitive decline.
- Keeps the brain young. All the processes that physical activity triggers in the brain add up to one sum: Moving our bodies keeps our brains young.
“Everything we’ve learned continues to confirm that exercise helps prevent cognitive decline as we age,” Ratey says. “All the antiaging protocols include exercise in a big way — it’s often the No. 1 lifestyle change to help people prevent aging and cognitive decline.”
Exercise boosts energy while easing stress and amplifying mental focus. Consider cortisol, the hormone that regulates your energy during the day. Under normal conditions, cortisol levels peak in the morning and then gradually decline, leaving you mellowed out and prepped to sleep at bedtime.
Chronic stress, though, can flip the normal daily cortisol cycle so you’re barely able to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, but too keyed up to sleep at night. Exercise can come to the rescue.
Easy movement, like walking or yoga, can nudge your parasympathetic nervous system into gear, helping to calm you down. This can save you from tossing and turning at night. Exercise can help change a vicious cycle of stress to a relaxed — and rewarding — circle of health benefits.
The Heart of the Matter
We’ve all heard that exercise is good for our cardiovascular system, but how good is it?
Cardiovascular disease ranks No. 1 among the leading causes of death worldwide, and the WHO recommends that people age 18 to 64 get 150 minutes per week of “moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity.” The benefits can be felt throughout your cardiovascular system — and beyond. Researchers estimate that 8 percent of all deaths could be prevented if everyone met that WHO physical-activity recommendation.
So, how does moving build cardio health?
- Promotes health of blood vessels, keeping them flexible and helping them function, as well as preventing and dissolving blood clots.
- Protects against chronic disease by keeping endothelial cells healthy; these cells line every surface of the circulatory system and play a key role in cardio health.
- Lowers blood pressure. In fact, exercise may be as effective as drugs — or even better — according to the findings of a recent meta-analysis of 391 randomized controlled trials, involving 39,742 participants, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The studies found that among hypertensive populations, there were “no detectable differences” in the systolic-blood-pressure-lowering effects of angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors (ACE-I), angiotensin-II-receptor blockers (ARBs), beta-blockers, and diuretics compared with regular endurance or resistance exercise.
- Reduces heart-disease risk by improving the production of atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP), the vascular hormone that counterbalances high blood pressure.
- Makes the heart bigger — and stronger. Endurance activities like running or rowing enlarge the heart chambers via a process called eccentric remodeling; this increases the amount of blood the heart pumps with each beat. Strength training enhances concentric remodeling; it increases the overall size of your heart and makes its walls thicker and stronger.
“The heart is a muscle, so just like other muscles, weightlifting makes the heart muscle get stronger,” says Brad Dieter, PhD, of Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.
Bone density deteriorates as we age — and for 25 million Americans, most of them women, normal bone loss becomes osteoporosis. Researchers have found that athletes, particularly those who do weight-bearing exercise, have greater bone density than their nonactive peers.
“Tension against the bone keeps it strong and growing,” explains functional-medicine practitioner and arthritis expert Susan Blum, MD, founder of the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, N.Y. “When there’s stress on the bone, the body responds by laying more [bone] down.”
Both high- and low-impact weight-bearing exercise is essential for bone health. High-impact options include team sports like basketball, as well as strength training, running, jumping rope, jumping jacks, or a vigorous yoga practice. For some low-impact options, try walking, elliptical machines, or stairclimbing.
Strength training, in particular, is helpful for building sturdier bones. As women get older, they’re especially susceptible to losing bone density; challenging the muscles counteracts the loss because when muscle contracts against bone, the bone responds by growing denser and stronger.
Muscle mass typically peaks at the end of your 20s. Unchecked, muscle loss can claim up to 50 percent of an inactive adult’s muscle tissue by the time he or she reaches 70, research shows.
That’s bad news for almost every body system. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, age-related loss of muscle mass, or sarcopenia, is linked to bone loss, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease.
The No. 1 prescription for reversing age-related sarcopenia, experts agree, is resistance training, including lifting weights and body-weight exercise.
Resistance training can support muscular hypertrophy and the cascade of benefits that come from maintaining muscular strength, including the preservation (or even improvement) of day-to-day function, metabolic health, bone health, balance, and longevity.
In fact, research shows that older adults with more muscle mass live longer — regardless of their body mass index (BMI).
If you could peek beneath your epidermis, you’d first see fascia — a white, elastic tissue made of collagen fibers, similar to the material in your ligaments and tendons. The meshlike substance interweaves through and around your muscles and bones, supports your organs, and shrink-wraps your entire internal structure.
Because of the interwoven nature of muscles and fascia, exercise can be a great way to release stuck fascia. Full-body movements that require a dynamic transfer of force from the ground through the body and out through the limbs — think using implements like battle ropes, kettlebells, and medicine balls — are ideal for restoring and preserving fascial health.
Rotational work, bouncing (like skipping rope and jogging), and strength training are also beneficial. Variety and diversity in movement are perhaps the most important factors for your fascia.
A Better Back
Americans spend a staggering $50 billion each year treating lower-back pain, according to the National Institutes of Health. It’s the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work.
For such a widespread problem, relief is not out of reach: Targeted strength and mobility work — as well as an overall active lifestyle — can go a long way in treating or preventing back pain and postural issues.
Building strength through the posterior chain as well as improving mobility in the hips and spine can effectively treat and prevent discomfort.
Staying active is one of the best ways to preserve, and even improve, joint health as we age. While all full-body activity can help keep the joints supple and lubricated, focusing on biomechanics, muscular imbalances, and neuromuscular inefficiencies can be particularly helpful in reducing strain on the joints.
The key to joint health lies in identifying and correcting any muscle malfunctions that could manifest as joint pain down the road.
Additionally, emphasizing the eccentric, lowering phase of a lift has been shown to strengthen connective tissues over time.
Hand and Wrist Mobility
Exercise is not something you do in spite of pain in your hands — experts say it can actually help relieve the pain.
“When people get wrist pain during weight-bearing exercises, they tend to assume that the problem is weakness,” says chiropractor and athletic-movement expert Eric Cobb, DC. “But the real issue is often mobility or stability.”
Mobilizing the joints in your hands regularly may alleviate pain — even pain caused by chronic issues like osteoarthritis — while increasing circulation and range of motion.
Knees are complex joints, and with this complexity comes the myth that the bones, tendons, ligaments, and cartilaginous tissues that flex, extend, and propel you in all directions are destined to deteriorate — destined for discomfort, for pain, for immobility, for surgery.
Many of the joint issues we consider chronic and a result of aging can be prevented or ameliorated by strengthening and mobilizing the entire leg, from hip to foot and everything in between.
Get ahead of knee pain with strength and mobility exercises that work your ankles, legs, and hips, like single-leg glute bridges, squats, and banded lateral walks. Find ways to stay active throughout the day while seeking out natural surfaces to stand and walk on, like sand, grass, dirt, and snow.
Foot issues can be plentiful and painful: Flat arches, bunions, plantar fasciitis, and arthritis are common complaints. As we age, these conditions can have a debilitating effect on our quality of life.
But foot complaints are rarely isolated to the feet. They can cause, or be caused by, issues elsewhere in the body. Once foot pain sets in, it can limit mobility and contribute to a sedentary lifestyle, which is associated with many chronic illnesses.
The cycle is vicious but preventable. With intentional stretches and strength moves that target not just the feet but also the lower legs, hips, and core, it’s possible to reclaim our foot health and prevent further issues.
Constipation is a chronic issue undermining the health of some 63 million Americans, with side effects hampering our digestion, detoxification, and energy levels as well as fueling inflammation and creating a breeding ground for chronic disease. Three things help relieve constipation while aiding digestion: plenty of fiber, good hydration, and physical activity.
A sedentary lifestyle is a setup for a sluggish gut; exercise stimulates blood flow, which improves gastrointestinal motility. A short walk is often all it takes to convince your body it’s time to go. Certain yoga asanas are helpful in nudging sluggish systems into gear. Simply put, moving helps keep things moving.
The rich blend of bacteria in a healthy gut microbiome thrives on a nutritious diet, but it may also get a boost from a good workout. In a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Microbiology, Finnish researchers found that for a group of previously sedentary overweight women, endurance training increased levels of a type of microbe that improves metabolic function, and reduced levels of another type of microbe, which in turn decreased the inflammation-producing action of certain lipids.
Animal studies from 2016 and 2017 suggest further effects: Both high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and basic aerobic exercise nurtured the microbiome.
Regular physical activity can help us recover more quickly, heal more easily, and get an edge on all kinds of disease and injury. In fact, exercise may just be nature’s best medicine. “There is no medication or nutritional supplement that even comes close to having all of the effects exercise does,” says David C. Nieman, PhD, author of The Exercise–Health Connection: How to Reduce Your Risk of Disease and Other Illnesses by Making Exercise Your Medicine. “It’s truly the best medicine we know of.”
We usually think of exercise as a preventive measure — something that helps us maintain our general fitness. But in truth, it offers a vast range of healing influences — helping to reverse negative biochemical trends while improving our resiliency and immunity at virtually every physiological level.
Inflammation is one of our body’s key responses to injury and infection, but chronic inflammation can have an adverse rather than a protective function. It can play a role in conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, as well as depression and other mental-health issues.
Over the years, multiple studies and numerous health experts have heralded physical activity as one of the best ways to keep inflammation at bay.
There are multiple ways movement helps: It may prod the body into making more antioxidants, which then seek and destroy free radicals associated with prolonged inflammation. And studies find both aerobic and nonaerobic exercise lowers levels of C-reactive protein, or CRP, one of the body’s primary markers for inflammation.
Epidemiological evidence shows that regular physical activity reduces the incidence of many chronic diseases as we age, “including communicable diseases such as viral and bacterial infections, as well as noncommunicable diseases such as cancer and chronic inflammatory disorders,” according to a 2018 paper in Frontiers in Immunology.
Connected with this, in 2020 the American College of Sports Medicine reported that working out is a first line of immune defense against pandemics such as COVID-19.
Exercise also supports the lymph system, a network of organs, tissues, and vessels that transport lymph fluid throughout the body, balancing fluids and producing white blood cells to fight off infection. The body has roughly 500 lymph nodes — nodules of tissue that take out metabolic trash. But the nodes can’t haul garbage to the curb without the help of muscles contracting during exercise and putting the squeeze on lymph nodes, helping them pump waste out of your system. Increased circulation is key to both white-blood-cell production and better lymph drainage.
It’s long been known that exercise can prevent and treat heart disease, among other chronic conditions. In 2020, an international team of researchers and practitioners suggested that cancer is on that list as well.
The American College of Sports Medicine convened the panel, which included representatives from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and 15 other organizations. Experts reviewed the latest research and concluded in a paper, published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, that an “exercise prescription” could lower the risk of developing colon, breast, endometrial, kidney, bladder, esophageal, and stomach cancers.
Some 60 million Americans wrestle with insomnia, according to a 2020 Harvard Medical School report. A slew of studies show exercise can elicit longer, more restful sleep.
Why? Well, an intense workout may leave you hungry for shuteye recovery time, but there’s more to it than that. Exercise is essentially a release valve for the stress hormone cortisol, helping you sleep more soundly and greet the day more refreshed. And your body is able to use the downtime for the tissue-repair work that keeps you both looking and feeling great.
Exercise may slow or prevent vision loss, according to a 2020 University of Virginia study. Macular degeneration affects millions of Americans and is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in adults over 50. The condition tends to emerge as we age and gradually abandon our fitness regimens.
In a study using mice, researchers found that exercising reduced the harmful overgrowth of blood vessels in the eyes — known to cause macular degeneration and other vision problems — by as much as 45 percent. They suspect the beneficial effects of exercise on the eyes may be due to increased blood flow.
Exercise and pregnancy used to be deemed a bad combination. Times have changed, and it’s now common to see pregnant women running endurance races, lifting weights, and practicing yoga, not to mention hoisting toddlers into shopping carts without hesitation. This shift comes thanks to ample research suggesting that most exercise during pregnancy is safe — and offers a number of health benefits.
Staying active can help reduce common discomforts (such as back pain), lower the risk of complications like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, reduce stress, boost energy, and improve sleep.
It can also help the body prepare for and recover from childbirth, both physically and mentally.
Let’s face it: As we age, our body fat increases, aerobic capacity decreases, and our muscles shrink. But the good news is that with consistent exercise and healthy lifestyle habits, we can minimize — and even reverse — these symptoms of aging and remain fit and active.
“An active lifestyle has a powerful influence on physiology and longevity,” explains Joe Friel, elite triathlon and cycling coach and the author of more than a dozen books, including Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life. “Longitudinal studies show that reduced workout and training intensity can result in significant declines in the performance-related physiology of athletes over time.”
Exercise is powerful medicine that keeps you healthier and biologically “younger.” In simple terms, the more you move, the less likely you are to die early.
Regular exercise gives you a healthy, glowing look, with smoother, more radiant skin. When you exercise, your skin’s tiny arteries open up, allowing more blood to reach the surface and deliver nutrients that repair damage from the sun and environmental pollutants. These nutrients rev up the skin’s collagen production, thwarting wrinkles.
Exercise also improves your stature, because you stand taller and straighter. It washes away stress and anxiety. It inspires more restful sleep that can leave you looking fresh and healthy.
It balances the body’s sex hormones, which in turn can improve the appearance of your hair, skin, and muscle tone. Estrogen, in particular, helps preserve the elasticity and moisture content of the skin.