Exercise may just be the closest thing to a fountain of youth that there is. Yet Americans are more sedentary these days than ever, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- Fewer than 5% of adults get at least 30 minutes of activity each day
- Only one-third reach the recommended amount per week
- More than 25% (80.2 million people) are flat-out inactive
Unfortunately, that lifestyle runs counter to our biology. Your body literally needs you to exercise in order to function at its best.
“We as humans are designed to move,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan, who notes that our primitive ancestors evolved as active beings who routinely moved hours upon hours every day. “The body is built like a machine, and if you don’t use it, it sort of freezes up — and we are now seeing the effects on our collective health.”
Decades of research unequivocally show just how dangerous a sedentary lifestyle can be. On the positive side, though, just as much research shows the incredibly therapeutic role exercise can play in maintaining and improving our physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as our longevity. And we’re learning more all the time.
For example, a new 2019 study that reviewed data from almost 15,000 people came to a stunning conclusion: Maintaining activity levels or becoming active in middle or older age — enough to meet the physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week — could prevent 46% of deaths associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
So, what exactly is so special about staying active, and how does it keep us young and healthy? Well, for starters, it’s hardly just one thing. Exercise does so many good things for your health, all of which work together to exponentially improve and maintain the way your body functions.
Why Exercise is a Superpower
1. It Stimulates New Mitochondria and Boosts Their Efficiency
Mitochondria are tiny organelles inside cells that generate energy your cells rely on to function. Keeping them healthy is one of the keys to longevity. However, if you don’t exercise and also eat a typical Western diet — one loaded with simple carbs and fat — mitochondria can burn out much more quickly, Dr. Rawls says.
“You dump all these high-energy foods into your system, but then you don’t burn the energy those foods create, and the system gets backed up,” he says. In other words, exercise maintains the energy give-and-take that helps mitochondria run efficiently and last for the long haul. Exercise also triggers the production of new mitochondria, helping to keep cellular energy available.
2. It Normalizes Blood Sugar
About 50% of Americans either have diabetes or are considered pre-diabetic, meaning their blood sugar levels are higher than they should be. That’s an indication that their bodies are having trouble efficiently moving glucose out of blood and into cells that use it for energy.
Both diabetes and high blood sugar are seriously dangerous. Along with having a major impact on metabolism and energy, they are factors in all sorts of other conditions, from cognitive and mood problems to obesity and heart disease.
The antidote? Exercise. When you move your body, your muscles contract, which sets off a chain reaction that mobilizes glucose and allows cells to better absorb it, Dr. Rawls says.
That’s true even without insulin, the hormone that gets released when blood sugar levels rise. Insulin signals and unlocks cells’ ability to take up glucose, and exercise improves the body’s sensitivity to insulin, plus it works to lower blood glucose through multiple other mechanisms.
The research is impressive: Among high-risk individuals, physical activity along with losing just a small amount of weight may reduce the risk of developing full-blown diabetes by 58%, according to a paper in the journal Diabetes Care. But more than lowering your risk of disease, maintaining an active lifestyle keeps your body’s blood sugar stable and metabolism humming.
“There’s probably nothing better for normalizing blood sugar than getting out and being active,” Dr. Rawls says.
3. It Diffuses Stress
“The normal reaction to your body’s fight-or-flight response is to be active, but most of the time when we’re stressed, we’re just sitting at our desks, so it’s like we’re in a pressure cooker,” Dr. Rawls says. “We’ve got all of this energy built up inside and we’re not getting that natural release.”
Exercise pops the top and helps you let it go. It also triggers the release of mood-boosting endorphins, and counters the inflammatory effects of stress.
People who are active may even release less cortisol when under social stress, reports a study in the journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping. Researchers believe this effect may be partly responsible for why exercise lessens the harmful effects of stress on health.
4. It Boosts Immunity and Flushes Toxins
Reducing stress and its pro-inflammatory side effects is one way exercise helps your body fight off bugs and viruses, but there are others, too. Physical activity triggers the release of anti-inflammatory cytokines from muscles, and it helps modulate metabolic signals related to immune function, according to a review in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design.
And now research is starting to connect the dots between exercise and your gut microbes, which are key to a healthy immune response. For example, one preliminary study published in Experimental Physiology suggests that improved cardiovascular fitness — how well you move oxygen and blood to tissues — is linked to better diversity among your gut’s microbes. And the more diverse our microbiome, the better it is for health and immunity overall, Dr. Rawls says.
One other important way exercise helps our immune system: By increasing blood flow and promoting sweat, which help flush toxins, viruses, and other garbage from the body, Dr. Rawls says. A spike in breathing rate during exercise also seems to help clear pathogens from your airways.
5. It Enhances Cardiovascular Function
Regular physical activity is as good as it gets for your heart. Exercise strengthens the heart muscle, reduces harmful inflammation, improves the health and elasticity of vessels, lowers blood pressure, and brings more nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to tissues.
“Think about what happens when a pumping system goes stagnate: Gunk can collect and build up,” Dr. Rawls says. “But exercise, by increasing blood flow, helps keep the pipes clear.”
Physically active people are routinely found to be at lower risk for heart disease and heart-related risk factors like high cholesterol. What’s more, research shows you don’t necessarily have to work out hard to see the benefits.
One study in the journal JAMA Network Open found that women reduced their 5-year risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart diseases by 10% and 20%, respectively, for every additional hour of light activity they engaged in.
6. It Improves and Protects Mood and Brain Function
Research has shown that few things are as reliably anti-depressant and anti-anxiety as exercise, and that includes some medications. As you might suspect, endorphins — feel-good chemicals our bodies produce during vigorous exercise — play a role.
But even low-intensity physical activity releases other important brain chemicals called specialized protein growth factors that spur the production of new brain cells and connections. Not only does that improve brain function, it may help improve mood by bolstering the parts of the brain that help control mood, according to Harvard researchers.
What’s more, research has likewise found that exercise literally can make you smarter. It improves your memory, helps you process information more quickly, and stimulates the growth of brain cells in key areas of the brain related to cognitive control.
Exercise also seems to protect the brain against age-related loss of tissue, according to a report in Comprehensive Physiology. Another study that followed a group of Welsh men for 35 years found that exercise had the biggest impact on reducing dementia risk compared to other healthy behaviors, including not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, and maintaining a healthy weight and diet.
Indeed, multiple other studies, reviews, and meta-analyses show that physical activity reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and cognitive decline later in life — possibly by as much as 45% when it comes to Alzheimer’s — and may even help improve cognition in those who have already developed the disease.
7. It Helps You Sleep
Exercise increases the concentration of adenosine in your system, one of your brain’s natural sleep aids that builds up throughout the day, eventually making you drowsy at night, Dr. Rawls says. The fact that staying active also helps quell stress and anxiety also likely plays a role in calming you down and helping you drift off when bedtime rolls around.
Consider the findings of a recent study of more than 2,600 adults: Logging the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week improved study participants’ sleep quality by 65%, and it helped them feel less tired during the day, report researchers in Mental Health & Physical Activity.
8. It Keeps Joints Healthy, Improves Flexibility, and Reduces Pain
When it comes to healthy joints, you’ve truly got to use ’em or you’ll lose ’em. Staying active helps reduce your risk of arthritis, and even eases the pain if you do develop the inflammatory condition.
It works by helping increase the flow of joints’ lubricating fluid and improving cartilage repair. In one recent study published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, people with achy, painful, or stiff joints who got just one hour of moderate activity a week — think brisk walks, even just 10 minutes a day — prevented the worsening of symptoms and were less likely to be disabled four years later.
4 Ways to Feel More Energized and Get More Exercise
If after reading all the great side effects of exercise you’re more motivated than ever to get active — perfect! Exercise is one habit that’s easier to stick with than you might think, especially if you choose activities you enjoy. Here, a few tips to get you on the right path:
1. Take Advantage of Opportunities to Stay Active Throughout the Day
Exercise doesn’t have to mean spending an hour at the gym every day, running on the treadmill, or lifting weights. You never even have to step foot in a gym or an exercise class if you don’t want to. In fact, it’s best to start slowly.
“We have become complacent in using mechanical devices and shortcuts, so we end up missing out on a lot of the everyday movement that is extraordinarily good for us,” Dr. Rawls says. “Leaf blowers are a perfect example. Standing there moving it back and forth gets you almost zero exercise. But if you pull out a rake, you get 10 times the movement. Simple things like that can make a huge difference.”
There are so many opportunities to easily sneak in activity, you just have to be aware and look for them, Dr. Rawls says. Think: cleaning the house, parking far from a door and walking across a parking lot, taking the dog for a walk, riding your bike on short errands, even chopping veggies and cooking a from-scratch meal. “If you cook a nice meal and do it all my hand, you’re going to use up a lot more energy than you can imagine,” he says.
2. Practice Healthy Sleep Hygiene
Exercise helps improve sleep, but the relationship goes both ways: There’s a clear link between not getting enough sleep and lack of activity, according to a review in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Research shows that even cutting yourself short on sleep to, say, 6 hours for a night or two, leads to lower activity levels the next day.
It makes sense. Sleep is key to feeling rested and energized the next day because it allows your body to recharge and restore essential daily functions that play a role in how you feel, including temperature and hormone regulation and immune responses. Studies also show that people who are fatigued from lack of sleep tend to eat more but don’t increase their activity levels to balance it, which can leave you sluggish. And they’re more at risk for depression, which is linked to low energy and activity.
Your best bet: Prioritize sleep — meaning go to bed early enough that you can log between 7 and 9 hours a night — and set yourself up for a good night. Keep the room cool and dark, minimize noise, ban caffeine later in the afternoon and evening, and avoid mobile and TV screens and other stimulating activities in the hour leading up to bedtime. All of these things can help make it easier to get the quality sleep that helps rev you up for an active day.
If you’re still struggling to fall asleep, consider taking a mix of calming, relaxing, gently-sedating herbs, says Dr. Rawls. He suggests a blend of bacopa, passionflower, and motherwort, the combination of which helps soothe the nervous system, relieve tension, bring on mental calm, and support restful sleep — all without the next-day drowsiness that can come with some sleep medications.
3. Fuel Up With the Right Kind of Carbs
Carbohydrates are a prime source of energy. Unfortunately, just the term carbs has an almost radioactive reputation. When people hear it, they often automatically think sugar and processed grains.
Those carbs in particular deserve their bad rap: They spike your blood glucose and cause all sorts of problems. Sure, you may get an initial boost of energy, but you’ll be feeling the sluggish effects of the crash shortly after.
But all carbs are not created equal. The fiber in nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains like brown rice, as well as what you get in legumes, provides lots of sustainable energy and won’t cause that spike-crash-crave cycle like sugar and processed grains do. That’s why the now-popular ketogenic diet — extremely low carbs and high fat — isn’t the answer, Dr. Rawls says.
“Many people turn to a ketogenic diet rather than eat carbs because they’re not moving enough,” he says. “If you’re moving every day, you’ll burn up the energy from carbs before they have time to lead to weight gain and cause other damage.” The goal, he says, is to be carb neutral and burn through the carbs you consume.
4. Power Up with Energizing Adaptogens
Adaptogen herbs help balance your body’s systems so you can better cope with stressors, and a few are known to be particularly energizing. What to try:
“Rhodiola is at the top of my list,” Dr. Rawls says. A flowering herb used in eastern Europe and Asia, it’s long been a go-to for athletes and workers looking for a boost in stamina and alertness.
It works mainly through its effects on the hypothalamus, thyroid, and adrenal glands, all of which play a role in controlling your body’s metabolism and energy. Russian scientists even studied the herb before turning to steroids to improve performance in athletes, astronauts and soldiers, according to National Geographic.
Today, research centers on general alertness, countering stress and endurance. For example, one study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that taking the rhodiola supplements prior to activity improved endurance exercise performance. Another trial found that taking the herb for just a few days helped relieve fatigue and exhaustion related to stress, reports the journal Phytotherapy Research.
Like rhodiola, this traditional Chinese Medicine herb is known to influence the hypothalamus, help reduce fatigue, improve stamina, and support your cardiovascular system, Dr. Rawls says. Sometimes called Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is also often used to enhance athletic performance; it may improve exercise capacity, oxygen uptake, and workload capacity.
One animal study suggests eleuthero may lengthen the time to fatigue during exercise by limiting the buildup of lactic acid, among other effects. Another trial found that when recreational athletes took the supplement for 8 weeks, it enhanced their endurance and cardio function, specifically oxygen usage, by 23% and 12%, respectively. Plus, it seemed to save subjects’ glycogen, your muscles’ backup store of energy.
So, make it your goal to do even a little more of any activity each day, and support your active lifestyle with the right herbs and lifestyle behaviors — it may literally save your life!
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