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Exercise: about more than your weight

Why do we need it?

In general terms, studies have shown that if you become and remain physically active, you will live longer, live better, look better and feel better about yourself. Active individuals have more vitality, think more clearly, sleep better, function better, and are more productive, creative and joyful.


And conversely, a sedentary lifestyle invites the body to atrophy. Specifically, the heart atrophies, other parts of the cardiovascular system become more vulnerble, muscles and the skeleton more fragile, obesity becomes a high risk, depression sets in, and systematic signs of premature aging develop.


Over the longer term, a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to or be a risk factor for: anxiety, cardiovascular disease, migraines, breast cancer, colon cancer, depression, diabetes, gout, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, skin problems and/or hair loss, obesity, osteoporosis, scoliosis and spinal disc herniation.


People who get regular exercise sleep almost an hour longer each night and fall asleep in half the time compared to those who are sedentary. Exercise can stave off what we consider inevitable, the muscle loss of aging. Moderate consistent exercise can reduce the risk of women developing breast cancer. The lymphatic system does not have its own “pump” like the heart of the cardiovascular system, so the skeletal muscle “pump” aids the flow of lymph, maintaining proper function of the immune system. Exercise as part of a weight management program has profound effects on modulating cortisol, testosterone, growth hormone and serotonin. For stress management, exercise can be used to deal with acute stress before it develops into chronic stress, bringing with it all the health issues associated with chronically elevated cortisol levels. Even modest amounts of exercise can reduce the risk of diabetes by reducing blood sugar levels.


How much do we need?

Most research shows that at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise (a brisk walk counts) each day is needed for long-term overall health. However, for best results, an hour or longer each day is recommended.


Exercise increases cortisol levels for the short term, which is beneficial for immune function, memory, appetite control, weight loss, sexual health, energy levels and inflammation levels. Well-trained athletes have high cortisol levels during workouts, but they fall back to normal during rest. However, over-trained athletes have low cortisol levels during workouts, and high levels at rest – this leads to fatigue, weight gain, depressed mood, and poor physical and mental performance. So it IS possible to exercise too much, but very few of us ever have this problem.


Past generations were much more active on a daily basis, just doing what needed to be done to get through the day. Modern day conveniences have made us much more sedentary. Automobiles meant less walking. Washing machines and clothes dryers resulted in the chore of laundry being much less physical. We don’t even have to get up to change the television channel anymore, thanks to the remote control!


So it is likely that your grandparents weren’t too concerned about an exercise regime, simply because their everyday life required much more physical activity. For most of us today, it is quite a different story, and we should be ensuring we are moving, spawning the invention of step-counters and fitness trackers. If you are concerned about your activity level, perhaps you should consider getting yourself a “gadget” to help motivate you and keep you on track.


Does it matter when I get it?

The same studies that show that physically active people live longer have also shown that it is never too late in life to start an active lifestyle, nor too late to benefit from that change.


The best time of day for exercise will vary from person to person. Some prefer to wake up early and get their workout in first thing in the morning. Others find it difficult to work out on an empty stomach and therefore would rather exercise later in the day. So for most of us that will be over the lunch hour, right after work, or a few hours after dinner has settled. It is generally not advisable to exercise too soon after a meal, since the body is busy digesting and the blood being diverted away from that job to the skeletal muscles may result in stomach cramps or worse. (This is why they tell you not to go swimming right after a meal.) Exercising too close to the time you go to bed may overstimulate you to the point that you have trouble getting to sleep.


You may have to try moving your workouts to various times of the day to see what works best for your body and fits into your daily commitments to work and family.


Is all exercise created equal?

The type of exercise you will most benefit from will be based on your particular circumstances. Joint pain or an old injury may mean you should be considering low-impact exercise. If your goals include significant weight loss, you will need very different types and amounts of exercise than someone who is recovering from hip replacement surgery.


Aerobic exercise such as running or swimming is particularly good for preserving the heart, lungs and brain. Aerobic capacity is your body’s ability to process oxygen, transporting it to all parts of your body through your bloodstream. Without a healthy supply of oxygen, our cells and tissues will deteriorate. In a study done at UBC, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning.


Stretching exercise such as yoga enhances circulation, increases range of motion and provides better body awareness. Many people who are new to exercise start with these types of workouts, in order to ease themselves into being more active, and it is generally less intimidating than starting off by lifting weights or joining a group bootcamp class.


Strength-based exercise such as weight-lifting improves bone density, increases muscle strength, balance and overall fitness. Studies show that exercise regimens that build muscle preserve aerobic capacity, keep blood pressure low, maintain healthy cholesterol and a healthy blood sugar tolerance, sustain mineral density of bones, and stabilize the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature. As well, a high muscle-to-fat ratio causes your metabolic rate (the rate at which your body burns calories) to increase.


Do I need to move more?

Most of us only realize we may need to move more when our clothes no longer fit or we hit some horrible number on the scale. But don’t “wait” until your “weight” becomes an issue before you start increasing the amount of exercise you are getting. There are several early signs that you need to be more physically active, including: trouble sleeping, lower back pain (from poor posture and/or a weak core), constant hunger (your body is producing more ghrelin, the “hunger hormone”), moodiness, low energy levels, constipation (poor colon function), difficulty dealing with stress, and trouble concentrating.


So what do I recommend?

It isn’t easy to make the shift from a sedentary lifestyle to being active on a daily basis. The key is finding something you enjoy and can make part of your life on a consistent basis. Something as basic as taking a brisk walk for at least 30 minutes each day will get you started. Move fast enough to increase your heart rate and work up at least a bit of a sweat.


If you don’t see yourself hitting the gym, there are many other activities you could consider such as dancing, skating, golf, slo-pitch, hiking, gardening or swimming.


Some of us need an accountability tool to keep us honest – this could be a buddy that you make the commitment with, pre-paying for some classes, or registering and raising funds for a charity walk/run. Whatever helps you commit and follow through!


There are also ways we can work more movement into our everyday lives. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther away from the store entrance when you go shopping. Get off the bus a stop or two early and walk the rest of the way.


Another key to a sustainable plan is to set realistic goals for yourself. If it’s been years since you were in the gym, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to get there 5 days a week on a consistent basis for more than a week or two. Ease into it and once you create the new habit, feeling all the benefits of being more active, it will be easier to ramp it up over time.


I can’t remember where I read this, but I like it: MOTION IS LOTION! Our bodies are designed for movement and can only function at optimal levels when we keep them active.


For specific information on a workout/exercise plan that is right for you and will help you reach your health and fitness goals, please contact Martin at martin@maginefitness.com.

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