By Dr. Mercola
By normalizing your blood sugar and optimizing your insulin and leptin receptor sensitivity, exercise can go a long way toward warding off chronic disease. It'll have a beneficial effect on virtually every disease state you could ever acquire.
This includes obesity and related metabolic dysfunction, but promoting weight loss is by no means the only way exercise will help you look and feel better.
In fact, it's hard to stop talking about the virtues of exercise because there are just so many of them. The featured article in Time Magazine1 covers 15. Here, I'll delve into my top seven picks of ways in which exercise makes you look and feel younger.
Exercise Boosts Your 'Vim and Vigor'
Exercise is one of the "golden tickets" to preventing disease and slowing the aging process. Besides helping you regain your insulin and leptin sensitivity, intense exercise also boosts your body's natural production of human growth hormone (HGH), a synergistic, foundational biochemical that boosts vigor and youthfulness.
In fact, HGH is often referred to as "the fitness hormone," for its invigorating, age-defying effects. It not only promotes muscle growth and effectively burns excessive fat; it also plays an important part in promoting overall health and longevity.
Once you hit the age of 30, you enter what's called "somatopause," at which point your levels of HGH begin to drop off quite dramatically. This decline of HGH is part of what drives your aging process, so maintaining your HGH levels gets increasingly important with age.
The caveat here is that in order to promote the release of HGH, the exercise must be intense,2,3 and many of the beneficial health effects associated with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are due to elevated HGH production.
Exercise also induces changes in mitochondrial enzyme content and activity, which can increase your cellular energy production, and triggers mitochondrial biogenesis4,5 (the process by which new mitochondria are formed in your cells). This reverses significant age-associated declines in mitochondrial mass, and in effect, "stops aging in its tracks."
Men will also be pleased to know that HIIT, specifically, also helps boost testosterone levels naturally. That's unlike aerobics or prolonged moderate exercise, which has been shown to have virtually no effect on testosterone levels.
The video above by MashUp Conditioning consists of a sprint workout that is one minute mind/body, two minutes of agility and strength, and two minutes of high-intensity intervals that is repeated two more times to make up a 15 minute workout. It demonstrates three different levels, so there is something for everyone.
Exercise Improves Your Posture
By building stronger muscles, especially around your core, your posture will improve right along with your general strength and mobility. If you don't take steps to strengthen and lengthen your spine, your shoulders will begin to hunch forward into a more rounded position and you'll find it difficult to stand as tall as you once did.
Poor posture is often a precursor to pain. An estimated 80 percent of the US population will experience back pain at some point in their life, and learning proper posture is crucial if you want to avoid this fate.
Strength training, yoga, and other exercises that work your core—such as planks and Foundation Training, for example—are all beneficial. While building strength, weight-bearing exercises such as planks also increase flexibility in your posterior muscle groups.
The muscles around your shoulders, collarbone, and shoulder blades will expand and stretch (an area that often receives little attention), as well as your hamstrings and even the arches of your feet and your toes—all of which will translate into better posture.
Sitting also tends to radically worsen not only your posture but your metabolism. So kick the sitting habit or at least reduce it below three hours a day to take a massive step forward at improving your posture. Standing instead of sitting is one of the easiest and most profound simple changes you can make.
Exercise Makes You More Flexible
Improved flexibility is another benefit of exercise that will serve you well as you get older. To achieve true fitness you really need to be able to move freely in all directions without any limitations to your range of motion (ROM), as this is what allows you to participate in all of life's wonderful activities.
Not only should you be able to walk around and climb up and down stairs without pain, but you should be able to participate in any athletic activity you choose, and not be limited by pain or range of motion.
Really, one of the greatest joys of life is to not only be healthy but pain-free – to be able to move like you did as a child, with complete freedom and ease. To ensure that, make sure to incorporate flexibility training into your workout routine.
Yoga is particularly useful for promoting flexibility, and can also help you turn your health around if you're too overweight to engage in more strenuous types of exercise. Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) is another excellent addition to your workout routine, as it will enhance all aspects of movement no matter what activities you participate in.
Exercise Is a Great Mood-Booster
Your mental and emotional well-being plays a major role in your physical health, and exercise has repeatedly been shown to be among the most effective "anti-depressants" available. Exercise can improve your mood in a number of different ways, including the following:
- Exercise boosts levels of soothing brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Regular exercise can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants
- Other neurotransmitters triggered by exercise include endorphins, glutamate, and GABA, which are also well-known for their role in mood control
- The increased blood flow also allows your brain to almost immediately function better. As a result, you tend to feel more focused after a workout. Furthermore, exercising regularly will promote the growth of new brain cells. In your hippocampus, these new brain cells help boost memory and learning
According to research6 by Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, depressed patients would do well to exercise for 45-60 minutes, three to five times per week. He also recommends raising your heart rate to at least 50-85 percent of your maximum, in order to reap results.
Exercise Helps You Sleep More Soundly
One of the benefits of exercise overall is improved sleep quality. Research7 shows that regular exercisers report sleeping better, including falling asleep faster and having a decreased need for sleeping pills than they did prior to the start of their exercise program. This is precisely why regular exercise is one of my 33 top tips for a good night's sleep.
That said, it's typically recommended that you don't exercise within three hours of bedtime so you have adequate time to wind down. Some people find they sleep really well when exercising shortly before bedtime; others feel too charged to go to sleep right away. You'll have to experiment to see what works best for you. If you really like exercising in the evening but find it makes it more difficult to fall asleep, you could reserve your evening exercise sessions for gentle, relaxing exercises like yoga, and schedule more vigorous workouts for morning or afternoon.
Exercise Protects Against and Helps Treat Cancer
Compelling evidence suggests exercise can not only cut your risk of cancer, it also helps cancer patients recuperate faster, and diminishes your risk of cancer recurrence. One of the mechanisms responsible for driving down your cancer risk is the fact that exercise decreases your insulin resistance. By creating a low sugar environment in your body, the growth and spread of cancer cells is significantly discouraged.
Exercise also improves circulation, driving more oxygen into your tissues and circulating immune cells in your blood. Animal research8,9 suggests regular exercise may be the key to significantly reduce your chances of developing liver cancer, which is among the most common types of cancer.
More recent research10,11 found that being fit in middle age cut men's risk of being diagnosed with lung cancer by 55 percent, and bowel cancer by 44 percent. High levels of cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) in middle age also helped men survive cancer, reducing their risk of dying from lung, bowel, and prostate cancer by nearly one-third (32 percent). Other research has shown that breast and colon cancer patients who exercise regularly have half the recurrence rate than non-exercisers.12
Weight training has also been shown to cut men's risk of dying from cancer by 40 percent, and similar findings have been reported in other studies involving both men and women. According to a 2003 paper,13 more than 100 epidemiologic studies on the role of physical activity and cancer prevention reveal that:
"Physically active men and women have about a 30-40 percent reduction in the risk of developing colon cancer, compared with inactive persons… With regard to breast cancer, there is reasonably clear evidence that physically active women have about a 20-30 percent reduction in risk, compared with inactive women."
Exercise Reduces Belly Fat
Abdominal fat—the visceral fat that deposits around your internal organs—releases proteins and hormones that can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage arteries and enter your liver, affecting how your body breaks down sugars and fats. The chronic inflammation associated with visceral fat accumulation can trigger a wide range of systemic diseases linked with metabolic syndrome. A combo that can effectively address belly fat is intermittent fasting in conjunction with high-intensity exercise, as this teaches your body how to remember to burn fat for fuel.
To find the HIIT workout that works best for you, see my previous article: "This Interval Training Infographic Helps You Pick the Right Workout." Also consider adding some strength training to your program. You can actually turn your strength training session into a high-intensity workout simply by slowing down your movements. Proper form is important, so to learn more about how to perform such exercises, please refer to my previous article, "Super-Slow Weight Training." Once you've shed the excess subcutaneous fat, abdominal exercises will help you develop those six-pack abs. To effectively work out your abs be sure to incorporate a variety of stabilization, functional, and traditional exercises. This includes:
- Traditional exercises, such as a standard crunch with rotation or a standing rotation with a light hand weight
- Functional exercises, including work on a stability ball
- Stabilizing exercises, such as lying on the floor and pulling your belly back toward your spine and holding that position while breathing deeply
- Extension exercises, such as lying on your stomach with arms extended above your head. Then raising both arms and both legs, at the same time, off the floor. (Hold for a count of 5, or 5 breaths, and slowly return to the floor)
- Push-ups also train your abdominals, provided you're doing them correctly
Exercise Is a Virtual 'Fountain of Youth...'
If you're still on the fence about starting an exercise program, there's no time like the present. I guarantee that when properly applied it'll make a major difference in your energy levels, self-esteem and probably your entire outlook on life. Exercising regularly creates a healthy feedback loop that optimizes and helps maintain healthy glucose and insulin levels through optimization of insulin receptor sensitivity, and this is one of the most important factors for optimizing your overall health and preventing disease of all kinds.
And please don't use your age as an excuse, because no matter your age, exercise can provide enormous benefits for your health. If you happen to be over 40, it's especially important to either start or step up your exercise program. This is the time of life when your physical strength, stamina, balance, and flexibility start to decline, and exercise can help to counteract that. For tips on getting started, check out my fitness page, Mercola Peak Fitness, which is a treasure trove of fitness videos and articles related to exercise.
Ideally, establish a comprehensive exercise program that includes high-intensity exercises, strength training, core exercises, and stretching. I also urge you to consider walking more, in addition to your regular workout regimen. Ideally, aim for 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day. Also avoid sitting as much as possible—ideally limiting your sitting to three hours a day or less, as prolonged sitting is an independent risk factor for chronic disease and early death—even if you're very fit and exercise regularly.