I know exercise is good for me. I know it’s important for my health and happiness and that it’s necessary for general fitness. That part’s easy — we hear about how we should exercise more all the time.
What I didn’t realize was how being inactive is really detrimental to the brain and body. I didn’t understand all of the specific ways regular activity can be beneficial, either.
With a little digging around, I found some research that made me realize there’s much more to exercising than just getting fit.
Inactivity changes our brain structure – literally
Firstly, the bad news. If you’re living a sedentary lifestyle, which more of us are prone to doing as technology takes away physical barriers for our work, you could be increasing your risk of heart disease. You may have even heard this before, since it’s fairly common knowledge that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease — what’s new in recent research are clues to exactly how this links might work.
Researchers at Wayne State University School of Medicine recently found that rats who were mostly sedentary for almost three months actually had physical changes in their brains, as a result. Some of the rats’ neurons had extra branches — the parts that help them connect into the sympathetic nervous system, where a lot of our involuntary physical functions are regulated, like breathing. Having too many branches, as the brains of these rats did, could lead to overstimulation of the nervous system.
The researchers involved in this study looked at the rostral ventrolateral medulla (RVLM) section of the brain. As you can see in the diagram below, this is the part of our brain that runs the sympathetic nervous system and helps us to maintain a regular heart rate and avoid serious issues like hypertension.
One of the things regulated by the sympathetic nervous system is the constriction of blood vessels to maintain regular blood flow and keep our blood pressure from spiking. This is where the researchers see a potential insight from their study: if inactivity affects this funtion of the sympathetic nervous system, that could explain how it leads to high blood pressure and higher risk of heart disease.
Of course, rats aren’t the same as humans, but the study does point out a possible direction for further research into the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.
How exercise is beneficial – more so than ever
Supposing you’re as concerned as I am about sitting around all day now, let’s have a look at some of the actual benefits of being active, besides simply avoiding the troubles of inactivity.
1. Exercise improves mental health
Exercise has been shown to improve mental health, especially in those suffering from depression or anxiety disorders. So far, the most impressive results have occurred in people who are mostly sedentary and take up a regular exercise routine. Some studies have also found that a difference is more clear in women and in people over the age of forty.
The results have included better mood, better overall well-being and fewer (or lower) symptoms of depression or anxiety.
2. Exercise decreases disease risk
Across several studies, evidence has piled together to prove that regular physical activity is effective in preventing several different chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity and osteoporosis.
This graph illustrates how just moderate exercise is enough to decrease your risk of disease and premature death:
There has also been some research indicating that exercise can reduce the risk of strokes.
3. Regular exercise can improve sleep
A study of people with insomnia showed that after four months of regular exercise, the participants were sleeping and average of 45 minutes longer per night. The results didn’t show that participants necessarily slept better the night after they exercised, but long-term, the study proved how effective regular activity can be in treating insomnia.
There have been quite a few studies into the benefits of exercise on sleep, many of them focusing on those with sleep complaints or disorders, who find regular exercise can improve overall sleep quality.
It’s also been found to help those without sleep troubles, though. Regular exercisers are more likely to self-report better sleep over the same amount of time as those who have mostly sedentary lifestyles:
The National Sleep Foundation also found the less time spent sitting down was linked to better sleep quality:
High-intensity exercise has also been found to improve sleep efficiency, so if you’re after a better night’s sleep you might want to try a tough gym session rather than a gentle stroll.
4. Exercise can reduce stress and improve mood
Vigorous activity isn’t just helpful for better sleep: it’s also been found to correlate with lower anxiety levels. That particular review says that exercise isn’t necessarily the cause of the lowered stress levels in participants, but it’s certainly correlated, and based on the other benefits I’ve listed, I doubt regular activity would be a bad thing to try.
Another review showed that physical activity can not only reduce stress but improve overall mood, confidence and self-esteem.
Adding exercise to your daily routine
Convinced? Not sure where to start, though? Don’t worry, I’m in the same boat.
To help us both get going with a little extra activity in our days, here are some easy ways to add regular bouts of exercise to your routine:
Track your daily activity: Tracking how much you move every day can be sobering when you first start, but it’s a good way to understand how much you might overestimate your daily activity levels. Try an app like Human or Moves to help you understand how much time you spend up and about each day.
Set a reminder: Set up a reminder on your computer or phone to go off every hour or two if you need help getting away from the desk. Use the trigger to remind you to get up and walk around—down the street for a drink, around the block, or just around the room for a couple of minutes.
Build activity into your routine: Building a little bit of extra activity into your routine might be the most effective way to increase your exercise levels. Try getting off train one stop early, going out to your letterbox every day, or choosing a café for your morning coffee that requires a 10-minute walk.
Once you make something like this a habit, you’ll probably find it’s easier than you thought to get moving every day.
Start with just 7 minutes: Get into a routine of regular workouts with just 7 minutes per day. The science-based 7-minute workout is hard, but short:
Those seven minutes should be, in a word, unpleasant. The upside is, after seven minutes, you’re done.
It’s a proven way to exercise your body at home, with just a chair and a wall to work with. In fact, I’m going to go do this one right now. Wish me luck!
Do you have some other suggestions? What works for you to increase your exercise levels? Let us know in the comments.
If you liked this post, you might like The Science of Posture: Sitting up straight will make you happier, more confident and less risk-averse and How Stress Can Change the Size of Our Brains and What We Can Do to Lower it, Nature.com
Image credits: Huffington Post, Science-based Running, New York Times, Jason Ilagan