Jen on Exercise & the Body
Exercise has a profound effect on our physical and mental state. I am a huge advocate for regular exercise simply based on how it has positively changed my life. My lovely and extremely intelligent friend, Jen, recently completed Physicians Assistant school, and will share with us the science behind the effects of physical movement on our bodies. I met Jen through a mutual friend last year while running a 5K. When I found out she was training for the Columbus marathon, a goal I wanted to complete, but was too intimidated to train alone, I eagerly asked if she wanted a training buddy. Our friendship flourished from there! 🙂 Jen was my saving grace during marathon training, and so many other runs, and I would not have wanted to complete such a significant physical life milestone with anyone else. During our hours of jogging together, we’ve found we share many of the same life values, particularly regarding health and wellness. Jen never ceases to amaze me with her level of knowledge, gracefulness in yoga, and encouragement and kindness. I love hearing the medical side of my life decisions from a source I love and trust.
Exercise & the Body by Jen:
I’ve always been pretty health-conscious, but more in the “I eat Cheetos naturals” way than the “insert kale into every meal” way… until about two years ago. For the past 2.5 years, I’ve been in Physician Assistant school getting my masters, and it has rocked my health world.
A disclaimer: I’m all for modern medicine. I just went to school to learn how to practice it, and I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the amazing things it can do. What gets dangerous is thinking that there is a pill for every problem, or that if you are on meds that there’s nothing more you can do or need to do to improve your health. If I could prescribe three things to all of my patients in addition to whatever they’re already doing, it would be these:
- Stop smoking
- Eat right
Seriously. That’s it. It will cure what ails ya. Yes, some of us need a little extra pharmacological help to be at our best, and there is nothing wrong with that, but these three things can dramatically improve overall health – sometimes to the point of not needing those pills at all. But I get it… even reading it is boring. Thank God for people like Teresa and blogs like this one that make it enticing, beautiful, and possible, right?
Of all of these, exercise is probably my favorite of the bunch. It is amazing – let me repeat – AMAZING for your body in just about every way. It detoxes. It strengthens. It stimulates. It has the power to undo the damage and buildup of years of less-than-stellar food and lifestyle choices, and can be just as effective a tool as a prescription drug in treating certain diseases. How does exercise work, exactly? Let’s go from head to toe:
Skin: Have you ever noticed that after-workout glow? For all the products out there that tout their bottled miracles, there is nothing like a good sweat to create a dewy, fresh-faced look. When you exercise, capillaries in the skin open up to release heat, which also means your skin gets a healthy dose of increased blood flow. Blood flow carries away waste and free radicals, which can slow or even reverse signs of aging. Researchers at McMaster University found that the stratum corneum, or outer layer of skin that thickens with age, was significantly thinner in individuals who exercised. In the study, volunteers ages 65+ who exercised regularly demonstrated skin composition similar to 20-40 year-olds! How’s that for magic? Just make sure you sunscreen up if you’re headed outside.
Neurological: Endorphins! Thanks, Legally Blonde, for introducing this concept fairly early on in my life. Along with those famed, euphoria-inducing molecules responsible for runner’s high, working up a sweat also promotes the release of other neurotransmitters like dopamine, glutamate, GABA, and serotonin, a process that is particularly beneficial for people who tend toward depression, anxiety, or any other mood disorder. Increased blood flow to the brain during exercise also stimulates new cell growth and the capacity for brain plasticity, particularly in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. In other words, if you’re worried about dementia, get active.
Cardiovascular: With heart disease being far and away the #1 killer in this country, I think about this one more than ever when I’m hitting the trail. The heart is possibly the biggest winner in the body when it comes to exercise, and it’s worth every step of prevention to invest in your own heart health, even if you don’t have a family history of disease. When you exercise, your heart has to struggle to keep up with the oxygen (read: blood) demand from your muscles. It beats harder, faster, and has to create and recruit new blood vessels (a process called angiogenesis) in order to keep it going. Over time, this makes for a very, very efficient machine, which is why distance runners and other endurance athletes typically have low resting heart rates: their hearts have learned how to do the job with minimal effort, so to speak. What about the blood vessels that cause so much trouble in diseases like hypertension (aka “the silent killer”) and angina? Exercise ups the plasticity of these blood vessels by reducing sympathetic and increasing parasympathetic tone. It also lowers the cholesterol that causes plaque inside them to build up in the first place. In just 3-4 weeks, exercise can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (the top and bottom numbers of your BP) by 7 points. That’s sometimes enough to avoid pills altogether – a big win in my book.
Musculoskeletal: This one is a no-brainer. It’s why most people start working out in the first place, and why your most chiseled friend is probably also the first to hit the gym every morning. But you don’t have to look like Arnold to get the benefits of regular exercise on your muscles and joints – even moderate exercise, like walking and restorative yoga, can build core and joint strength required to prevent tears, strains, sprains, and everything in between. When you feel the burn in your muscles when you’re working out, what you’re actually experiencing is the sensation of hundreds of tiny muscle fibers tearing. They grow back denser and stronger, which is both why you feel sore after a good workout and why the scale isn’t always the best way to measure fitness – dense muscle weighs more than fat. Bones behave in a similar way: the more pressure you put on them, the stronger they get – a principle known as Wolff’s Law. This is especially great for women, who are more prone to osteoporosis and kyphosis later in life. So all those little old ladies lifting weights in the gym? Give them a high-five.
Endocrine: Let me count the ways. Actually, that might take all day, so I’ll summarize: want better sleep? Exercise. Prediabetic or have a family history of diabetes? Exercise. No libido or trouble with erectile dysfunction? Exercise. Have a tendency to catch every bug that goes around? Exercise. Trouble with metabolic disorders? Exercise.
Convinced yet? Exercise is some of the best medicine around, hands down. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting from the couch or training for marathons; find what you love and get out there. Move. Your body will love it.
Other health questions for our PA Jen? Leave them in the comments!