Daily movement is a foundational piece of our health in order to sustain our physical, mental, and emotional wellness. We often run to the latest supplement or health craze to meet our health goals, but the benefits of something so simple such as taking a walk isn’t on the forefront of our minds. Furthermore, many of us don’t get enough daily movement because of sedentary jobs and the increase in electronic use of television, video games, and cell phones.
According to evidence, a sedentary lifestyle increases our risk of all-cause mortality as well as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and some cancers. Some of the healthiest things we can do for the body are free. Implementing daily movement is an easy way to enhance our health or gain a targeted benefit that reaps a huge return. With that being said, I want to talk about the benefits of movement and why we should be incorporating it in some way or another into our daily lives.
Protective Against Brain Aging and Dementia
When it comes to neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia, modern medicine lacks promising solutions proven to benefit cognitive function, but there are exciting outcomes when we take actions to prevent these conditions early on. Interestingly, discoveries have revealed the importance of aerobic exercise on our brain health.
Research has shown that long-term aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming, yard work, and cycling have a neuroprotective effect on brain.
Aerobic exercise can be defined as any movement that is sustained for 20-30 minutes and increases the heart rate and need for oxygen. Not only is regular movement beneficial in preventing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, but it is also found to stall progression of these conditions. A random controlled trial involving a large group of seniors observed larger hippocampus volumes, an area in the brain that controls learning and memory, after 1 year of aerobic exercise compared to the control group who were doing simple stretching and toning.
Not only is regular exercise beneficial for those who have cognitive impairment, but there is evidence that physical exercise early in life has a neuroprotective effect for developing cognitive diseases later in life. A study observing a group of women who were active during their teenage or mid-life (30-50s) years resulted in a lower risk of developing cognitive dysfunction later in life compared to women of their age who were sedentary in their younger years.
Movement is a critical part of maintaining cardiovascular health such as circulation, blood pressure, and the health of our veins and arteries. Our cardiovascular system is the highway of transportation for nutrients, hormones, metabolic wastes, and more. If we don’t have proper circulation, we aren’t going to get nutrients to our cells efficiently. Unlike our arteries, veins don’t use the force of our heartbeat to pump blood through their vessels. They must rely on muscular contraction through movement in order to return blood back to the heart. We see inefficient blood return in the elderly during long flights when their legs swell because of blood pooling in the extremities. Implementing short breaks from sitting has shown to protect our cardiovascular system.
A study done by Indiana University found that 3 5-minute walks can reverse damage done to leg arteries from 3 hours of sitting. Brain fog can also be a sign of insufficient circulation where the brain isn’t getting enough blood flow. Increasing our heart rate through walking, running, or yard work will make it easier on the heart to move blood through the body which supports blood pressure, mental clarity, and protects the heart.
Blood Sugar Regulation
Insulin resistance is a very common metabolic disorder that can lead itself to the diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.Insulin is secreted by the pancreas in response to our food being broken down into glucose. Glucose is the body’s source of energy and fuel, but it can’t be delivered into our cells without insulin. If we become insulin resistant, glucose can build up in the blood and cause blood sugar issues.
Keeping our blood sugar stable is important for the prevention of diabetes and is easily controlled by simple lifestyle factors such as nutrition, stress reduction, and exercise. Gentle movement after meals such as walking can taper a blood sugar spike and increase insulin sensitivity. During physical activity, insulin sensitivity is heightened in response to muscle cell contraction which requires extra glucose for fuel. Walking is a simple, but easy way to keep your blood sugar stable after a large meal. At the same time, we also must keep in mind that if we don’t have enough fuel before going to the gym or doing some sort of activity we can have a blood sugar crash because we are using up our glucose stores very quickly.
Both men and women’s hormones are greatly effected by the type and duration of exercise chosen. Even though it is seen as a healthy stress, excessive training and high intensity workouts can negatively affect hormones and can even hinder weight loss progress. Physical stress causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol and then in turn, can lower sex hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. Elevated cortisol causes us to retain weight in our midsection and if the body is already stressed from emotional, physical, or mental stress, adding extra physical stress isn’t going to benefit us.
Choosing an exercise that is gentle on our metabolic health such as weight lifting, is very important for hormone health, fertility, metabolism, and weight loss. Resistance training has also shown to directly effect testosterone production in men by increasing levels after a workout session.
Many of us use walking as a tool to clear our brains when experiencing a negative emotion. It has been observed that forward movement such as walking and observing our surrounding environment helps us process difficult emotions and traumatic events.
A therapy used by phycologists called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses lateral eye movement and imagery to calm the amygdala in the brain where we store negative memories and emotions. When we are walking and physically moving forward, our eyes are moving back and forth to observe our environment. This forward motion combined with lateral eye movement has a similar affect as EMDR therapy and helps us to process our emotions by quieting our fear response and activates dopamine to induce feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. The physical act of moving forward also symbolizes “forward movement” into the difficult situation we’re facing and works to calm our nervous system.
What Type of Exercise is Best?
When determining which type of workout best serves you, we must consider our overall health and wellness. One of the main factors to consider when choosing an exercise is our overall stress levels. When we think of stress, our minds automatically go to emotional stress coming from work, school, or relationships, but there’s a lot more to stress than just emotions.
Anything that causes the body to become out of balance is stress. Stress can come from a physical root just as much as an emotional root. Physical stress can include things like infections, a broken bone, or even a healthy stress such as exercise. Our body responds to a physical stressor in the same way as an emotional stressor by raising our stress hormones. When we perceive stress, the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain send a signal to our adrenal glands to secrete stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
This communication and feedback mechanism is call the HPA (hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenals) axis. When there are too many stressors in our lives (physical, mental or emotional) we may experience HPA axis dysregulation and an imbalance in our stress hormones. This may cause symptoms such as low energy, feeling wired but tired, stress, panic attacks, burnout, insomnia and more.
Although exercise is a healthy and beneficial thing, if we do it in excessive amounts or with too much intensity, it can cause the body to release stress hormones in response to that stressor on the body. Cardio or HIIT (high intensity interval training), for example, are going to put a much larger stress load and demand more of the body than low intensity movement such as walking. If a client is experiencing HPA axis dysregulation and is also doing high intensity workouts, I will usually advise them to take a break from that type of exercise and implement low intensity movement such as walking or light weight lifting.
All too often, people are burnt out, stressed, on the go, and are doing intense workouts at the same time. When we are under emotional stress and have elevated stress hormones, the last thing we want to do is add additional physical stress by doing intense workouts.
If you have symptoms of HPA axis dysregulation, then I would recommend gentle movement such as walking, stretching, hiking, light weight lifting, or doing a physical activity that you enjoy. In addition, finding the type of workout that serves you best will depend on how you feel afterwards. How are your energy levels? Do you feel energized and motivated to start? If you feel depleted and tired for the rest of the day after your workout, then that’s a good sign that you need to reevaluate your choice of workout.
Listening to your body is key. It’s important to note that cardio or intense workouts are not harmful in themselves, but we must evaluate the state of our health in order to determine what is best for us, personally. I’ve also found that there are times when we are in overdrive and aren’t in tune with our body and we need someone to tell us to take a break or slow down. It’s extremely important to pay attention to the cues our body is giving us to avoid further complications later.
Getting daily movement and exercise doesn’t have to be limited to look a certain way as it can include walking, running, stretching, yard work, weight lifting, sports, and so much more. It’s important to remember that we can gain health benefits from light exercising such as walking just as much as going to the gym to lift weights. Regardless of what it looks like for you, aim to add daily movement into your routine and watch it transform your mental, emotional, and physical health.
All information contained within this article is meant for educational use only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any disease.