OK this is it. The post to end all posts on exercise. The reasons for exercise and improving you lifestyle go much deeper and are more complicated than just “losing weight” or “getting fit”. So here is the most definitive list ever compiled in history of definitive lists on the topic of why you should exercise.
N.B. As I started writing this article, it became clearer that the article would be more accurately title “The positive effect of hormone release in your body after exercise”. That’s how my research panned out and its largely overlooked. Clients often focus on the end result and as trainers we often get focused on defining and attaining goals to keep our clients happy (and retain them). But the bigger picture definitely is the effect that hormones play in our body and the imbalance that occurs through inactivity. The bolded items below are almost always exclusively as a result of one or many hormones that are bolstered as a result of moderate (Cardio) or strenuous (HIIT) exercise.
You feel good after exercise
Despite the hard work involved in strenuous exercise, in general you will feel much better due to the Endorphins and “feel good” hormones, such as adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine being released in to your system. Your body doesn’t know that your not being chased by a tiger, so it floods your system with hormones to increase your speed and pain tolerance and to increase the size and strength of your muscles so you will outrun the tiger next time there by increasing your chance of surviving and passing along your genes to your off spring.
In nature when an animal is under threat it will do one of three things; fight, take flight or fright (stand very still hoping not to be seen). In terms of evolution a stressful event ( a chasing tiger ) is relatively short lived. The stress response exists (fight, flight or fright reaction) in our body to react in order to survive. Cortisole is a normal hormone that plays a vital role in our body. Its levels are raised when we wake in the morning, when we exercise and when we are stressed (tiger chasing). It us used to heighten awareness to improve our chances or survival. When you are stressed from work or kids, cortisol levels stay high which is bad for our body. It starts to interfere with learning by affecting memory (forget stressful event so you can move on in life) lower immune function (due to immune cells being surrounded in molecules telling them to stop fighting during this immediate stress response) and bone density (due to body function be redirected towards improving the chances of living during the stress event. Getting the picture. Long term stress is bad for our body and is linked with increase weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, affects sleep, heart disease, skin disorders. The list goes on.
Exercise lowers cortisol.
Well sort of. Exercise increases cortisol temporarily, but in healthy people it lowers to a normal level soon after. In stressed people the high levels can be helped to be lowered through the beneficial effects of exercise. Cardio exercise (65-75% of max exertion) is found to be best to lower cortisol. Further to this, a study in Japan found moderate exercise in a relaxing environment such as the country side or woods as opposed to a city or suburb, lowers cortisol even further due to the relaxing effect of being in the country. So there may be a link in the raising of feel good hormones produced during exercise such as dopamine and serotonin and the lowering of cortisol.
Think clearer and improve learning
Exercise allows you to think clearer and boosts creativity. Stress hormones (cortisole) negatively affect neurotransmitters which affects memory and slows learning. When you exercise endorphin levels are raised, stress hormones are lowered which improves the prioritizing functions of the brain and improves learning. By returning stress levels to an optimum level(per above) and feeling better about your self (endorphins), learning becomes easier. On a cognitive level, exercise allows you to clear you mind so you can focus more on what your learning with out other thought distracting you.
Hormone effect of exercise in the body
Estrogen – There are links between estrogen and breast cancer. Overweight women may produce too much estrogen. Exercise lowers estrogen by breaking it down into good and bad “estrogen metabolites”. In women who exercise the ratio of good to bad “estrogen metabolites” is important in reducing breast cancer risk. Lowering estrogen also aids weight loss .
Testosterone – Exercise increases testosterone levels which aids muscle growth and bone density. Low levels of can lead to depression, low sex drive, obesity and osteoporosis. The best way to raise testosterone quickly is through High Intensity exercise. Here are some ways to raise testosterone. As little as 1 six second sprint may be enough to raise levels significantly (although more are better). Lift very heavy weights 2-3 times a week. Rest for at least 2 seconds between sets. Have a spotter assist with 2 additional reps (per set). Work the body’s largest muscles. (Legs and butt). Protein shakes (soy in particular)can lower Avoid cardio exercise. Cardio lowers testosterone. (I’ll credit this last point – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12580668)
Endorphins – When you exercise your body releases Endorphins, which are used to reduce the perception of pain. Endorphins, being an opiate produces a similar feeling to that of morphine. The shape of endorphins fit like a key onto “opioid receptors” in your nervous system, blocking the transmissions of pain and producing a euphoric feeling. In evolutionary terms, the production of Endorphins lower the perception of pain enable you to run faster, fight longer without tiring, to ensure your survival and pass on your genes. Endorphins also have a positive effect on brain function and can affect a persons personality, ability to think clearly and improve their mood. After exercise, sleep is important to repair and grow muscles. Endorphins act as a mild sedative thus allow sleep to come easier. They also stimulate the immune system.
Adrenaline also known as Epinephrine is a hormone, secreted by the medulla of the Adrenal Glands and the nervous system. It is released in response to extreme stress. The immediate response when this hormone is released is the increase in heart rate, muscle strength, blood pressure and the metabolism of sugar. Epinephrine is also used to medically treat heart attacks, asthma and anaphylactic shock. Epinephrine is designed to prepare the body for strenuous work. It is one of the two primary hormones that breaks down sugars. The other being glucogen. Ephidrene (similar to Epinephrine) is extracted from the Chinese desert shrub Ma Huang and used medically to treat the above. It also aids dieters to suppress appetite and breaks down glycogen in the liver.
Noradrenaline also known as Norepinephrine – is created in the top of the brain stem. It prepares the body for stress by raising the heart rate, blood pressure and increasing sugar synthesis in the blood stream. Norepinephrine and Epinephrine have a similar name and stimulating effects but affect the body slightly differently. Norepinephrine is synthesized from dopamine and therefore can be used to enhance the mood and improve mental alertness of people who are severely depressed. Too much Norepinephrine can cause symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. Exercise helps to keep these important hormones at the appropriate levels. Aiding weight loss and good mental health.
Serotonin – carries signals along and between nerves. Among other things it contributes to well being and happiness. It is responsible for maintaining mood balance and low levels can lead to depression. Serotonin is made in the brain and the intestines. Seratonin levels affect mood, social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and lowers sexual desire and negatively affects sexual gratification . Serotonin is made after sweet or starchy foods are consumed. It reduces appetite as food is eaten giving a satisfied feeling. Natural ways to increase serotonin include mood induction, sun light, massage, exercise and improved diet.
Epinephrine also known as Adrenaline is used medically to treat anaphylaxis, cardiac arrest, asthma and bleeding. Side effects include sweating, shaking and anxiety. In the body its naturally occurring and is the primary hormone in the “fight, flight or fright” response. Its used to raise awareness, increase the heart rate, increase blood pressure and metabolism, to promote increased blood flow to the muscles, increase strength and raise the blood sugar levels. Adrenaline is released during stressful events such as High Intensity exercise, traumatic events and during risk taking behaviour such as extreme and risky sports.
Dopamine is synthesized in the brain and kidneys. The body is often “rewarded” with dopamine after certain behaviours such as gambing and drug taking. The powerful high that is connected with Dopamine elevation is what makes the above behaviours so addictive. Dopamine also has other complicated bodily functions. Low levels has a role in Parkinsens Disease, ADHD while heightened levels are related to Schizophrenia. Dopamine plays important levels in certain upper and lower levels of functions including motivation, arousal, reinforcement and reward, lactation, sexual gratification and nausea.
Reward – is the attractive component of something that increase the appetite for it; (Exercise, recreational drugs, food). Often in addictive behaviours, the use or abuse of a stimulus (exercise, drugs and food) increases as the pleasure it causes decreases. The reward system of the brain at its core, is one of the sole primal survival mechanisms and is extremely complicated, making addictive behaviours difficult to combat.
Oxytocin is a medication and human hormone. It is used medically to increase the speed of birth and reduce bleeding after birth. In the human body it plays a role in social bonding and sexual reproduction. At birth, its released to help with birth, release milk and to help the mother bond with the baby. Normally in the human body raised Oxytocin levels causes feelings of contentment and security, reduces anxiety, cause calmness and protect against stress. Natural ways to increase Oxytocin are being altruistic, hugging someone, light exercise, laughing, deep breathing, eating oxytocin rich meals (Eggs, bananas, pepper), listening to soothing music, talking to or being with a mate.
Human growth hormone – as the name suggests HGH is a hormone that stimulates cell growth, cell reproduction and regeneration. HGH is also known as somatotropin. HGH is a stress hormone that raises the levels of glucose and free fatty acids to assist metabolism. HGH production peaks an hour after the onset of sleep. Peak HGH secretions occur in teen years falling to a bit above half as an adult.
Factors the increase the release of HGH are:
- other hormones
- sex hormones – estrogen, androgen
- deep sleep
- niacin (Vitamin B3)
- vigorous exercise
Factors the decrease the release of HGH are:
- stress (build up of cortisol)
- high blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
- other factors are beyond the scope of this discussion
Improve Mental Health
Studies have show people engaging in exercise had lost symptoms of depressions after 3-4 months. The hormonal changes from exercise (discussed above) positively affected their thinking patterns which improved the quality of their life.
Increase your life expectancy
It has long been known that exercise increases your life expectancy. On a simpler physical level, exercise improves the quality of your sleep and causes you to make healthier decisions regarding your lifestyle (better eating habits, quit smoking and drinking etc) and improves your mental health. At a deeper level, exercise strengthens your heart, improves functions of vitals organs and immunity, reduces obesity and risk of heart disease and some cancers, improve skin and bone health.
Exercise reduces the risk of gaining excess weight ( reduces the chance of gestational diabetes ), cause your labour and delivery to be easier, and allow you to recover better and quicker, sustain less damage during birth, reduce incidence of back pain, have more energy, lesson the chance of sickness and more likely to avoid prenatal depression. The list goes on but these are the most obvious.
Improve sex life
Exercise can increase the enjoyment of sex by providing you with the stamina to have longer and more fulfilling sex and giving you better climax’s. Increased cardio vascular fitness will increase endorphin’s which will increase your sex drive. Being fit in general will also increase your endurance which means you can last for longer making you a more enjoyable sexual partner. Hormones released with strength training will increase your libido and sexual arousal. As well as having the added benefit of being able to lift and hold your self and your partner in various positions will increase fun and satisfaction. The benefits of stretching from yoga and a general stretching regime will increase stamina and energy as well as making you more likely to try new fun positions.
Boost self esteem
Sitting around at work and watching television doesn’t do much for your self esteem. Exercise release heaps of feel good hormones which change how you feel from the inside. On the outside, you will feel better because of your sense of achievement from having started on a journey that is good and wholesome. You will notice that you look better and may even get compliments from others. People who exercise regularly report that they do have their down days but feel better once they have achieved their regular work out. That change of mindset does wonders to boost your self esteem. Exercise makes you feel in control as it gives you your anchor that you can rely on. The socialisation aspects of exercise cant be understated. Being a part of a group that meets regularly makes you belong to something. Exercise improves attention and concentration as you feel happy, healthy, relaxed and ready for learning.
Exercise improves the quality of your sleep. As discussed above, exercise increases Serotonin and Endorphins which provides a mild sedative effect and increases drowsiness. Also the reduction of anxiety results in people getting to sleep sooner and staying asleep. Exercise strengthens circadian rhythms bring more alertness during the waking hours and better sleep. Improved sleep also has the added effect of providing a more productive exercise session, thereby reinforcing the cycle. Better sleep improves peoples mood and quality of life.
If you are still reading, thank you for taking the time to get this far. This research certainly opened my eyes to a few things and shows just how complicated the process are to loose weight and improve the quality of your life. The other benefits of exercise go out the door and around the corner. It is however well documented that exercise will lengthen our lifespans, our quality of life and make you feel better about your self.