So much of the popular conversation on exercise revolves around weight that many of its other benefits go underappreciated.
In his research article “Exercise, the Neglected Therapy,” Robert Butler famously wrote, “If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed, and beneficial, medicine in the nation.” He goes on to discuss how surprising yet common it is that “four out of five Americans have never been advised by a physician to exercise.”
This was published in 1978, and it is obvious that by 2021, recommendations and public appreciation for exercise have increased substantially since then. However, when the average American embarks on a new exercise routine, it is often motivated by the goal to lose weight. There’s nothing wrong with that, but such a singular and appearance-driven goal can often lead to feelings of frustration and shame when the results in the mirror or on the scale don’t pan out the way we expect. This can also underplay the importance of exercise for people of all ages and body types.
One of the most helpful ways to understand the value of getting physical activity is to learn more about its diverse benefits. We know exercise would sell like hotcakes if it could be made into a pill, but why exactly? The potential answers are almost too many to count.
Starting at the top, exercise has incredible benefits for the brain. It increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain, which improves cognition and brain tissue health. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that it even appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, which is a region integral to learning and memory. It promotes the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and promotes the creation of new brain cells.
Psychologically, exercise improves mood and reduces stress by releasing endorphins, which promote positive feelings, and lowering cortisol. Cortisol can accumulate in your body after prolonged stress, and lowering your levels of it can improve focus and reduce fatigue. Physical activity also promotes the release of norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine which are all important chemicals for emotional regulation.
Routine physical activity can result in better sleep quality. It physically tires you out and even helps lower your body temperature at night, which in turn helps you sleep. It can help reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. A 2012 study from Northwestern University found that aerobic exercise improved sleep quality and reduced daytime sleepiness in adults over age 55 with insomnia. Exercise has been shown to reduce the severity of sleep apnea.
Some sources of chronic pain can be reduced through exercise. A 2001 systematic review of several studies from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, found that exercise was effective in management of chronic low back pain, fibromyalgia syndrome and pain in upper extremities. Another meta-analysis conducted by researchers at several universities across the United Kingdom in 2017 analyzed 21 reviews, and found that only three reported no significant changes in pain following an exercise routine. The study discusses that better data from larger sample sizes is needed to truly assess the effects of exercise on chronic pain, but that the available data suggests exercise may improve pain, physical function and overall quality of life.
Because a lack of physical activity is a primary driver behind the development of many chronic diseases, exercise is obviously important for the overall health of all the body’s systems. Exercise also increases antioxidant activity and defenses.
The list could go on, so don’t write off exercise just as a way to “burn fat” or lose weight. A balanced approach to exercise is good all around for the body and mind.
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