Why does exercise matter? Is it really just to have defined abs or burn enough calories to eat whatever we want?
I remember a conversation I had with a wonderful friend many years ago. She was really getting into running and confided in me her motivation: “I work out a lot so I can eat whatever I want.” I remember, once upon a time, thinking a similar thought. Of course that idea came crashing down as I headed into my college years. As a dance major I was dancing upwards of 8 hours a day, running, and lifting weights. I was also eating “whatever I wanted” and was larger than I have ever been… even compared to being nine months pregnant.
For me, making a switch to real food was nothing short of dramatic in how it affected my body. Of course, every body is different and not everyone enjoys such easy weight loss no matter how “virtuous” their diet. Nonetheless, most people are beginning to believe the idea that diet plays a more vital role in nutrition than exercise.
And I agree…. to an extent.
Unfortunately, many people are using that mantra as an excuse to continue living a very sedentary lifestyle. And while I do believe that food provides the nourishing building blocks required for good health (I mean, the first role of food is to heal and rebuild the cells of our body!)… I also believe that exercise plays a critical role in our health. Exercise matters…. a lot.
Why exercise matters: The effects of a sedentary life
Simplified, diet and exercise are the balance by which our energy lies. What we consume is energy in. Movement is energy out. Most people chastise sedentary lifestyles because our energy in is far outweighing energy out… and the result is most likely weight gain. And while this is true, being sedentary does even more harm to our bodies beyond just throwing our energy reservoirs out of whack:
- One study suggests that sitting results in rapid and dramatic changes in skeletal muscle (specifically reduction in muscle triglyceride uptake)
- Excessive sitting has been shown to reduce HDL (good) cholesterol
- In healthy human subjects, 5 days of bed rest has been shown to increase plasma triglycerides and LDL cholesterol
- Sedentary lifestyles has also been shown to increase insulin resistance (source)
Keep in mind that these negative changes have little or nothing to do with the accumulation of body fat… meaning both thin and obese individuals suffer from these health risks when spending excessive amount of time sitting down.
These negative changes are likely related to reductions in the activity of lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme which allows muscle to uptake fat, thereby reducing the amount of fat circulating in the blood… Sedentary behaviour may also reduce glucose transporter protein content in the muscle, making it more difficult for glucose to be taken into the muscle, and resulting in higher blood sugar levels. (source)
Now, I don’t want to scare people who have to sit at a desk job all day. You shouldn’t stress about the things you have no control over, but rather find proper motivation to make the changes you can.
So what are the benefits of exercise?
Did you know that regular physical activity helps many of the body’s systems actually function better? Exercise keeps heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other diseases at bay. According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, being physically active on a regular basis:
- Improves your chances of living longer and living healthier
- Helps protect you from developing heart disease and stroke or its precursors, high blood pressure and undesirable blood lipid patterns
- Helps protect you from developing certain cancers, including colon and breast cancer, and possibly lung and endometrial (uterine lining) cancer
- Helps prevent type 2 diabetes (what was once called adult-onset diabetes) and metabolic syndrome (a constellation of risk factors that increases the chances of developing heart disease and diabetes; read more about simple steps to prevent diabetes)
- Helps prevent the insidious loss of bone known as osteoporosis
- Reduces the risk of falling and improves cognitive function among older adults
- Relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety and improves mood
- Prevents weight gain, promotes weight loss (when combined with a lower-calorie diet), and helps keep weight off after weight loss
- Improves heart-lung and muscle fitness
- Improves sleep (source)
Time to get movin’
Ever since my little girl was born (yes, over two years ago) I’ve noticed that I just don’t move as much as I used to. I could blame motherhood, working at home, pregnancy, or a number of other factors… but the truth is I have nobody to blame but myself.
I needed to get moving again.
I had the motivation. I know that my body feels better when I get physically active regularly in my day. My problem (as I’m sure many of you can relate) was simply that I’d let other things take priority… until the day was done and I hadn’t done much moving at all.
Thankfully, a few months ago I purchased a fitbit zip to help me track my movement. I was shocked to see how little I really did…
But I was more amazed at how easily I was able to get a lot more movement in my day with a little reminder and purpose.
Once I started tracking my steps I found it easy to get in my 10,000 steps a day… even if it was a little bit at a time. I also found my energy coming back as I moved… making yoga and strength training more easy, too. Talk about a win/win.
Do what works for you, but do something.
You don’t need to purchase a fancy pedometer or have an expensive gym membership to get moving. For some people these things may help, and if it’s in your ability to purchase helpful tools, I say “go for it.”
But all we really need to get moving is a body.
Let’s define “exercise”
With so many “rules” on how much exercise you should be getting a day, it’s easy to think that if you are spending 60 minutes in a gym that you aren’t doing anything.
Exercise is defined as “Activity requiring physical effort, carried out esp. to sustain or improve health and fitness.”
Notice that is says nothing about running marathons, joining crossfit, certifying in yoga or the like. That’s because there are infinite ways we can move our body. The key to good exercise is to find what you love to do.
Hate running? Don’t do it. Think aerobics is boring? Forget it.
The only caveat I would add here is that it is important to train your body in different ways. And that includes strength training… of some variety.
Easy ways to get moving
1. Set an alarm ever hour and get up and walk for at least five minutes. This could possibly be one of the most powerful things you do for your body… especially if you have a sedentary job.
2. Go to a park. Ever watch kids at a playground? They are all over the place. Something about parks and playgrounds that just brings back some “fun momentum” to get you going. Play a game of tag with some friends. Try out the swings. Roll down a hill. Watch some kids and be inspired.
3. Start and end your day with movement. Gently stretch the moment you get out of bed. Learn a short yoga routine to end your day. Walk around the block morning and night. Make movement the “hello” and “goodbye” of each day and notice how much better you feel.
4. Do what you love: Tennis, swimming, wii dancing, jump rope, basketball, yoga, weights, running, walking, whatever! Don’t limit yourself by some “standard” of proper exercise. Just move.
So… what are YOU going to do to get moving?