For as long as physical fitness has been a household word, the masses have tried to piece together exercise routines to achieve a desired level of fitness. Honestly? It has seemed the mass appeal has more to do with aesthetics than longevity, but they both seem to rank pretty high in the reason for working out category. Indeed, by regular exercise and healthy eating habits a person should be able to maintain a well-formed physique. However, the wellspring of benefits from regular exercise is far deeper than it appears from the first look. There are many “hidden” benefits from a lifestyle that includes regular exercise; the list is seemingly endless. These benefits include bone, tendon and ligament health, integument (skin) health, chemical health, mental health, and postural benefits, to name a few.
Of course, when we perceive a body as appearing physical fit, we usually think about muscle strength. Muscle strength is indeed an obvious benefit of physical fitness, but muscles are only one part of large puzzle, a puzzle that begins with the skeletal system – bones, ligaments and tendons. The bones to which muscle are attached play a major role in our functioning lives from everyday activities to intense sporting activities. Without these bones, we would flop around like jelly fish with no apparent beneficial consequences from activating our muscle fibers. Bones, which are living tissues, function as the site for formation of blood cells and storage of minerals. Regular exercise can help to achieve maximum bone density and strength. Weight bearing exercise (i.e. as walking, running, hiking, dance, etc.) as opposed to non-weight bearing exercise (i.e. swimming, bike riding) as well as weight lifting are activities which are best for increased bone health. If you are not inclined to head to the gym on a regular basis, remember you can also incorporate exercise into your everyday life. Carrying heavy groceries and moving furniture when you clean are forms of lifting heavy weight. Taking the stairs instead of elevator, walking instead of taking the bus and dancing the night away are also ways to incorporate cardiovascular weight bearing activities into your everyday life.
In addition, bands of tough, fibrous and elastic connective tissues attaching bone to bone (ligaments), muscle to bone (tendons) and muscle to muscle (fascia) are also living tissues that benefit from regular exercise. These tissues are made up primarily of collagen (a group of naturally occurring proteins) and require adequate nutrition from our blood to keep them healthy and functional. Regular exercise and flexibility training encourages blood flow to these tissues to keep them strong, elastic and healthy. The skin is also primarily made up of the same type of collagen as these connective tissues. Thusly, what’s good for the connective tissue is good for elasticity of the skin.
Moving past the skeletal system, we take a gander in the unseen parts of the body – the compounds that keep everything functioning smoothly. The chemical processes that take place within the human body are as expansive as our own galaxy but often not notably recognized. Body chemistry can morph tremendously during exercise through a myriad of methods. However, rather than walk through a college level chemistry or biology class, why don’t we take a look at some of the more familiar processes within the body and see the changes that occur during exercise.
Endorphins are a well recognized word, but perhaps not truly understood. Most people would agree that endorphins can give an “up” feeling and that we can derive this feeling from exercise… but what, why and how? The word endorphin actually is the combination of two words endogenous which means growing from within (the body) and morphine which is an opioid drug that can relieve severe or agonizing pain. In other words, it is a morphine that is made by and within the body (specifically by the pituitary gland). This substance is produced during excitement, fear and pain. Another way of inciting the body to produce this compound is by exercise. Endorphins are released during long periods of exercise, when intensity is moderately high (around 85-92% of maximum heart rate), thus producing a sensation of euphoria.
In another area of the cosmic land of inner-space lies the immune system — the body’s natural line of defense against attacking virus or bacteria pathogens. During moderate exercise, with blood circulating through the body more rapidly, antibodies and white blood cells are better able to fight these pathogens. Another theory that supports exercise-induced immune system boost is the ability of prolonged cardiovascular exercise to help rid the lungs of the pathogens related to common upper respiratory tract infections. Concurrently, the body can expel certain cancer-causing cells and waste because of increased output of urine and sweat.
Next we will look at the good (high density lipoproteins) the bad (low-density lipoproteins) and the ugly (total cholesterol). Changes in cholesterol levels in the blood have been observed with moderate exercise. Because cholesterol cannot dissolve in the blood, it needs to be transported to cells via lipoproteins. The lower the density of lipoprotein, the more apt the cholesterol is to cling to the walls of the arteries (along with other compounds) and create plaque. It has been found that moderate exercise on a regular basis somewhat decreases the levels of total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, and increasing the level of HDL (good) cholesterol.
A strong-backed man is the picture of good health. A strong back and healthy spine is also key in the instrumentation of good posture, keeping the body in proper alignment. Maintaining proper posture may sound like the words of an old school marm from charm school, but even in today’s modern world, the benefits of proper posture are tremendous. Postural deviations that come as a result of weak or imbalanced muscles are a contributing factor of musculoskeletal injuries and chronic physiological pain. When muscles are not properly balanced (i.e. hamstrings tight with weak hip flexors), the outcome can vary from the inability to function properly on a day-to-day basis, to extreme, chronic pain. Maintaining balanced muscle strength and flexibility training with a regular exercise program can help to reduce postural deviations.
The above list of benefits to regular exercise is in no way comprehensive. Exercise is simply a building block of excellent health. The entire body, from the hair on your head to the tips of you toes, will profit from a well-designed exercise program.