Exercise as Medicine - For Mind and Body

Exercise as Medicine - For Mind and Body

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” -- Hippocrates

Who out there among us hasn’t heard the immortal words of the great Hippocrates?

These days were constantly reminded (or admonished) about the importance diet plays in our overall health and well-being. And, who can blame them? You very literally are what you eat, in that your body creates new cells from the nutrients you feed it on a daily basis.

So, I think we can all agree that diet plays a fairly significant role in daily life. Yet, there’s another staple of daily life that seems to not get as much respect as it should.

Related - Find the Best Workout for Your Goals

That other staple is exercise.

Now, we know that exercise (particularly resistance-training) helps us build muscle, lose fat, and look good in a swimsuit, but it’s so much more than that.

Exercise plays a pivotal role in preserving and enhancing all facets of life, including mood, energy levels, cognition, and physical functioning.

In this article, we’ll discuss the myriad of ways in which exercise is medicine for your body and your mind.

Let’s start at the top.

How Does Exercise Improve Mood?

Thanks to recent advances in modern science over the past several years, our understanding of how the brain works has greatly expanded and continues to grow at an ever-increasing rate. Recently, researchers have begun looking into the many ways that physical fitness improve a person’s neurological fitness.

As much as you might dread a tough workout, there’s no denying the fact that intense exercise can have profound effects on your mood. Runners know this better than anyone else.

In fact, research has shown that “the runner’s high” is very real, and the sense of elation that engulfs your body after a tough run is incredibly powerful, but it happens a bit differently than you probably think.

While most attribute the runner’s high to a rush of endorphins (the body’s “homemade” opiate), recent research indicates that the elevation in mood experienced after training may be due to the endocannabinoid system (the psychoactive receptor that marijuana affects), which impacts pleasure and pain-relief in the body. [1]

What’s really interesting, is that exercise not only provides a positive boost in mood, but it also helps reduce negative mood states as well, and these effects aren’t only present immediately after your workout either. Some research indicates that the mood-elevating effects from exercise can last up to 24 hours post-workout! [2][4]

Speaking of negative mood states, exercise (particularly yoga) can help alleviate stress and anxiety. When you’re stressed, your body’s cortisol levels rise, activating the “fight or flight” response. Performing yoga helps coordinate movement with the breath, training your body’s relaxation response to help lower stress. [5]

Additional research has helped shed light on exactly how exercise reduces stress.

Do More Yoga for Less Stress

A 2010 study noted that after eight weeks of daily yoga and meditation practice, subjects reported a reduction in stress levels, and when doctors scanned the brains of these individuals, they observed that patients practicing yoga had a shrinkage of their amygdala, the part of the brain believed to be responsible for stress, fear and anxiety. [6]

Working out regularly is also being studied as a way to combat depression. In fact, a 2013 review concluded that both aerobic (cardio)and anaerobic (heavy weightlifting) exercise was “moderately effective” in treating symptoms of depression. [7]

Part of the reason exercise may be so useful for improving mood and combating feelings of depression may have to do with the fact that exercise increases levels of the feel-good chemicals in your brain, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. [2] You can also up the “high” from exercise by training outdoors, which has been shown to work better for depression than indoor workouts, probably due to the fact that vitamin D plays a critical role in serotonin production.[4]

One more reason to get outdoors more, even if it’s just for a walk, is that being outdoors has been shown to reduce feelings of tension and stress while enhancing enthusiasm, pleasure, vitality, and self-esteem. [4]

In other words, don’t stay cooped up inside all the time. Even if it’s just for a 10-minute walk, getting outside and experiencing the world can do a world of good for your mental state and sense of well-being!

Now, let’s take a look at how exercise, and even the type, of exercise can improve the overall function of your brain!

How Does Exercise Improve Cognitive Function?

Working out improves cognitive function both directly and indirectly, and on top of that, what type of exercise you perform determines what region of the brain is impacted.

Exercise Enhances Focus & Attention

If you find it hard to stay “locked in” or struggle with brain fog and wandering thoughts during the work day, getting some morning exercise can help you stay focused and on task.

Research shows that even as little as 20-minute bouts of aerobic exercise improves attention span and executive command, which improves your ability to multitask, ignore distractions, and retain and manipulate information. [8][9] Exercise also enhances cerebral blood flow, which delivers more oxygen and important nutrients (such as glucose -- the brain’s choice fuel) improving focus and learning while clearing brain fog. [3]

What if 20 minutes too much time away from work for you?

That’s OK!

Other research indicates that engaging in just 10 minutes of playful activities (bouncing two balls simultaneously) improves attention. [10] We’ve all got 10 minutes to spare during the day. Hell, you probably waste more than that amount of time in useless social media “debates.”

Rather than waste brainpower and energy on social media, why not get out and walk for 10 minutes. Or, if all else fails, bounce a couple ping-pong balls on your desk.

After those 10 minutes are up, you’ll be re-engaged in your work and more productive too!

Working Out Boosts Creativity

How many times have you hit the proverbial “brick wall” while working or studying and felt that you just needed to get out?

We’ve been there too.

Rather than continue to pound your head against the desk and force yourself to work, get out for a walk. Studies show that walking (indoors or outdoors) improves divergent thinking -- the free-thinking, idea-generating component of creative thinking. [11]

Note that walking doesn’t seem to enhance convergent thinking, so if you’re trying to problem solve and need to identify one and only one solution, it might not be the best form of exercise to perform.

Exercise Improves Learning & Memory

There are several portions of the brain that impact memory, but the one that seems to be most directly tied to memory is the hippocampus, which governs declarative and episodic memory as well as recognition memory.

Studies have noted that aerobic exercise (cardio) significantly impacts the hippocampus, and actually helps it grow. [12][13] In addition to improving memory, exercise can also improve memory formation. Activities such as cycling and even walking during learning can enhance your ability to retain information. [14]

However, it’s important that if you’re trying to learn or memorize something you keep the intensity moderate at best, as high-intensity workouts (HIIT) can increase stress levels, which plays haywire with memory “circuits” in your brain.

Physical Activity Combats Cognitive Decline

Not only does exercise enhance how your brain works on a daily basis, it also serves as a valuable protector of your neurons by staving off cognitive decline.
Studies have shown that exercise has a profound effect on brain plasticity and neurogenesis, which means regular works not only improve the “flexibility” of your brain in its ability to rewire itself, but also fosters the creation of new neurons. [15]

As you’re well aware, with aging comes a gradual dying off of important brain cells, which contributes to cognitive decline, and when too many of these vital neurons die, that’s when neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s set in.

By regularly engaging in exercise, your supporting your muscle and brain tissue to keep them strong and supple, so they’re more able to withstand the effects of aging. In fact, researchers are beginning to encourage the implementation of regular exercise as a means to delay the onset of dementia and cognitive decline, as well as improve symptoms in patients already combatting the diseases. [16]

WIth the mental enhancing side of exercise addressed, let’s now turn our attention to the ways in which exercise “medicates” our bodies.

The Healing Properties of Exercise on the Human Body

Decreases Risk of Chronic Disease

Research has established a pretty strong link between lack of exercise and chronic disease (type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, etc.). [17][18] What that means is that even minimal amounts of physical activity can improve your resiliency and help you avoid the onset of certain disease too. In other words, YOU have the power (to a certain extent) to stave of illness and disease, particularly the ones that are self-induced.

A host of studies show that engaging in regular bouts of physical activity:[19][20][21][22]

  • Improve insulin sensitivity
  • Decrease blood pressure
  • Reduce high lipid levels (blood fat)
  • Enhance cardiovascular fitness
  • Improve body composition

Conversely, lack of exercise, even brief periods can lead to dramatic increases in abdominal fat and waist circumference, which significantly elevates your risk of chronic disease and even premature death. [19]

As such, if you’re keen to preserve health and wellness for as long as possible while disease-proofing yourself (as much as possible), you’d be best served to increase exercise output and drop the belly fat. [23]

Enhances Weight Loss

Building off the previous point, exercise can accelerate weight loss, and lack of exercise is associated with weight gain and obesity. [24][25]

Yes, we’ve all heard the old adage, “you can’t out exercise a bad diet”, and we’ll be the first ones to agree that diet is the primary driver of weight loss.

But, exercise can enhance and accelerate weight loss in a few different ways. First, since weight loss is about calories in vs calories out, anything that reduces your calories in or increases your calories out, by definition enhances weight loss.

Guess what… Exercise increases your energy (calories) output, meaning you will burn more calories exercising in a given day than one in which you laid on the sofa all day long.

Secondly, exercise (particularly resistance training and high-intensity interval training) elevates your metabolic rate for up to 24-48 hours post-workout. This leads to an increase in the number of calories your body burns the day you exercise, and for up to two days afterward.

Even if this amount is minimal, any additional energy output (calories burned) is beneficial when seeking weight loss. [26][27]

Finally, resistance-training also preserves and builds lean muscle tissue. The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate is, and the more calories you will burn daily than someone who does not have much muscle mass.

And, as we pointed out above, losing weight is beneficial to staving off the onset of chronic disease or fighting your way out of it, if not completely than at least reducing the extent to which you rely on pharmaceuticals to survive.

Improves Cardiovascular Health

The much-despised, yet very much needed, “cardio” is short for cardiovascular exercise and derives its name from cardiovascular which means of or relating to the heart and circulatory system.

As you would expect, cardiovascular exercise enhances health and functioning of the cardiovascular network. And, anything that keeps the system that is responsible for circulating your life force (blood) through you in tip-top shape is a very good thing.

Now, the ways in which exercise aids cardiovascular health are multifactorial. In particular, exercise: [28]

  • Improves coronary blood flow
  • Reduces systemic inflammation
  • Decreases blood coagulation
  • Improves cardiac function
  • Enhances endothelial function

Fortifies Bone Structure

As we age, one of the biggest risks we face (particularly women) is osteoporosis, a gradual weakening of the bones due to a loss of bone density. Part of this bone weakening (and muscle loss) is due to the reduction in physical activity, particularly weight-bearing activity, that takes place the older we get.

Exercise helps increase bone density, fortifying you from breaking the proverbial “hip” when you slip and fall. [32] High-impact exercise (sprinting, plyometrics, etc) have been noted to enhance bone density to a greater degree than non-impact forms of training, such as walking or cycling. [33] But, any form of exercise will benefit bone density. So, if you do not like or cannot handle impact forms of training, you’re better of doing something than nothing at all.

And, as we mentioned previously, intense exercise helps build muscle tissue. In addition to boosting your metabolic rate and helping keep your waistline in check, the more muscle mass you have the more resilient you are to skeletal injury as one of the least-discussed functions of muscle tissue is to protect the skeleton from impact. [30]

Furthermore, should you get sick and wind up in the hospital, the more muscle mass your body has the greater your chances are for surviving. [31]

Boosts Energy Levels

One of the more curious things about exercise is that while it requires energy to perform (sometimes considerable amounts of energy depending on the workout), it can actually invigorate us and give us more energy.

Now, this also depends on the duration and intensity of exercise. Push too hard for too long in any given session and you’ll be floored. But at the right intensity for the right amount of time, exercise can give you a much needed mental and physical energy boost. [34][35]

Research has shown that exercise can even boost energy levels in those plagued by persistent and chronic fatigue as well as other disorders which seemingly deplete our desire to move, including various types of cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS), and HIV. [34][35]

Improves Sleep

Sleep is essential to recovery, growth, and optimal performance, both mentally and physically. Good news, exercise can improve your nighttime repose too![38][39]

Energy is expended and core temperature rises when we exercise. This is believed to lead to improvements in sleep quality as the body tries to recuperate the energy that was expended in training and help lower core temperature during sleep.

One study, in particular, noted that exercising as little as 150 minutes per week (5-30 minute sessions) led to a 65% improvement in sleep quality. [40] Additional studies have found that exercise may help treat insomnia and increase energy levels the following day.

Perhaps best of all, the kind of exercise you perform is secondary to doing exercise as studies show that both aerobic and anaerobic exercise can equally benefit quality of sleep. [41] Again we see that the mode of exercise isn’t nearly as important as just getting up, moving your body, and doing some kind of physically taxing activity.

Exercise is Medicine

No matter how you look at the situation, there is little disputing that exercise is medicine. Both forms improve quality of life, longevity, and cognitive health. And just like actual pharmaceuticals, there is an appropriate “dose” of exercise for us all. The ideal dose is highly dependant on a number of factors including age, previous training experience, injury history and a whole lot of other things.

But, the main difference is that exercise is true health care while prescriptions are “sick care” in that they are prescribed to treat a condition or symptom (which may or may not have been brought on by a lack of exercise in the first place).

The takeaway here is that we all can benefit from exercise in a multitude of ways. And the best part is that you don’t need a prescription to start exercising or have to shell out any money at all!


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