I’m sure you’ve heard that one of the fantastic benefits of exercise, especially when it comes to your mental wellbeing, is that it boosts endorphins – right?
But it can do SO much more than that, because of one simple mechanism, and I am going to make it really easy for you to understand. Hopefully, the more you understand about how exercise can help you, the more likely you will be to include it into your life.
Stress is something that we all deal with every single day. Not only is stress considered to be mentally stressful events in our lives, but sleep deprivation, injury, too much exercise (or new exercise), food deprivation, excesses of food, alcohol, tobacco and drugs, and more, all cause stress to our bodies. Too much stress has a damaging effect, which not only impacts your nervous system, but can put you at risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and autoimmune disorders, to name a few. This is because when we are stressed, we produce high levels of our stress hormone, cortisol (I’ll tell you more about that in a moment).
But of course, we can’t just make stress disappear – in fact, we need our natural stress response to protect us if and when we are in danger; that’s why it exists. Our stress response prepares our body to ‘fight or flight’ (take action or flee) in the moment – this is when you are “running on adrenaline”. It’s meant to be a short-term response, where systems that aren’t required in that moment (such as your digestive system) are shut down in favour of the systems that will help you in the presence of danger (eg. your heart and your muscles).
But when this stress is prolonged, as it often is in the modern world, our bodies pump out cortisol in response.
Cortisol, as I said, is our stress hormone. Normally, it’s the hormone that wakes us up in the morning in response to the sun, has anti-stress and anti-inflammatory functions, forms glucose to be used for energy from non-carbohydrate sources, and helps the formation of short-term memory, but, especially in excess, in times of ongoing stress, it has incredibly damaging effects. These include; insomnia, fat deposition around the belly (which is both a sign of excess fat around the organs and is difficult to burn off), a weakened immune system, muscle wasting and reduced bone formation, and impaired learning.
The damaging effects of cortisol can be reversed if we take steps to improve our response to stress, prioritise self-care and make a conscious effect to relax and breath. This is where exercise can provide a huge benefit.
You know how some days, when you’re feeling really stressed, and after a walk or a workout where you’ve got your blood pumping and taking your mind away from whatever is causing you stress, you feel clearer, calmer, better?
This isn’t just the endorphins you’ve released; your exercise has broken down a big chunk of your excess cortisol, essentially breaking down your stress.
Over time, regular exercise can have a huge impact on your stress, which can provide relief for anxiety, depression and the stresses of every day life. 30 minutes of mild exercise (walking, yoga, swimming, etc) is recommended every day to achieve this benefit.
I find that on the days that exercise feels like the last thing that I want to do, or the stress of the day has convinced me that I don’t have the time to practice my self-care, reminding myself of this function of exercise can really help to motivate me.
Some other benefits of exercise include:
- Strengthening my bones when the muscles I use pull on them. This signals to my bones that I still need their strength to keep me standing and keep me upright, which helps to reduce my risk of osteoporosis
- Signalling my cells to take up the glucose (sugar) in my blood for energy without the use of insulin. These transporters are known as GLUT-4, and stimulating their use reduces my reliance on insulin, reducing my risk of insulin resistance and Type-2 Diabetes
- Promotes the movement of blood through my body. This helps the transport of nutrients to and the removal of waste products from, all of the cells in my body. This also stimulates the smooth muscles in my digestive system, which means I’m better digesting and absorbing my nutrients
I find it so much more fascinating and empowering to think about exercise in these ways than to simply think about it from an aesthetic perspective and what it can do for the way that I look. It’s a much more mindful way to exercise and keeps you in touch with how your body works, encouraging you to be grateful for all of the fascinating ways your body helps you get around.