My journey with exercise
Bodies glistening as a bead of sweat runs down meaty bicep. Lycra so tight it looks sprayed on. The deep thumping of bass music vibrating through your bones….
Welcome to the gym.
And as you glance over at the impossibly animated gym-goes you feel a twinge of remorse. You think to yourself ‘I could be that gym girl with a gravity-defying ponytail’. But then those awful memories from your school PE lessons come flashing back and hit you with a thud. You resign yourself to the fact you will never be one of these ‘fit people’ and you move on with your life.
Exercising can be really intimidating at first.
Now I was never a fit kid. In fact, running was my nemesis. When we had to start running cross-country in school it triggered a recurring nightmare of me being chased by a massive lobster across a field. So safe to say, by the time I was an adult, going to gym sounded hellish.
I could not think of anything worse than having to haul my ass to my gym and then spend the whole time there trying not to look so sweaty/fall of the machinery/not make a complete tit of myself in front of the ‘fit people’.
But then I got a free gym membership with my work. I was so bored that one day out of sheer curiosity I thought I would venture into the scary gym land.
Entering the Gym Land…
And…. it wasn’t that bad. I still felt pretty out of place, but no-one was snarling at me. Slowly, as my boredom grey going to the became a way to pass the hours going to gym and I would go most days after work.
However, that fear of public humiliation never quite faded…
I was still a complete newbie and really had no idea what I was doing. Asking for help was too embarrassing so I stuck to what looked the easiest and used three things in the entire gym. Yes, three pieces of equipment. More specifically, the elliptical, the treadmill (walking only) and a singular weight for Russian twists.
I know I know call me Mr Schwarzenegger
And although the whole experience did not teach me much in terms of actual fitness, it did teach me something important. Fitness had actually become… kind of fun.
For the first time in my life I was not exercising to burn calories, to slim down for summer, or to achieve whatever new trend was in that year. I was doing it for entertainment. And let me tell you when I realised this, I was shocked.
I wasn’t picking activities based on what would make me look the best, or what would burn the most calories. Instead I was picking exercise based on what looked fun. I left the gym and began taking dance classes, trying out surfing, hiking with friends, practising yoga and running for entertainment.
Exercising has become so much more than ‘Getting Abs in 2 weeks’, it has become a place to clear my head, to achieve goals and to get back to myself.
Reasons to exercise that have nothing to do with how you look-
Better Mental Health
Exercise has been an absolute game changer for my mental health. Creating a regular exercise routine has massively helped to reduce my level of anxiety and improve my overall mood. But this isn’t just anecdotal evidence. Exercise makes us feel mentally better for a number for reasons.
When we exercise we release endorphins that stimulate the prefrontal and limbic regions of the brain. These endorphins reduce our sensations to pain and trigger a similar response in our bodies to that of morphine. Or in other words endorphins make us feel happy. It is these endorphins that create that ‘runners high’.
For example, the results of a study completed by the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health found that “running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.”
For this reason, there is growing belief in prescribing exercise to patients with mild to moderate depression.
Furthermore, many of the sensations we feel when exercising, like an increased heart rate, rapid breathing and sweatiness, mimic the sensations we feel during an anxiety attack. Smits and Otto, the authors of “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being.”, reasoned that exercise would act as an “exposure treatment” for people with anxiety, as they would begin to associate these feelings with exercise instead of panic attacks. “They tested their theory among 60 volunteers with heightened sensitivity to anxiety. Subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group (Depression and Anxiety, 2008).”
Exercise helps maintain a health younger brain
There has been a lot of interesting new research on the effect exercise has on our brains leading to the theory that physical activity is “one of the absolute best ways to maintain and even improve coginitive health” (7).
This seems to be the case for two reasons. Firstly, blood flow is essential to maintain a healthy brain in old age. However, if our arteries begin to clog due to poor lifestyle choices, this will begin to limit the amount of blood flow reaching our brain. In essence “the steps you take to keep your heart arteries unclogged also keep your brain arteries open” (1).
The second reason that exercise seems to help maintain brain health into old age is due to grey matter. Our brain is made up of grey matter, however, as we age we begin to naturally lose a certain of it which then results in memory loss and cognitive difficulties. Our brains literally shrink. However, some studies have found that exercising can “increase new neurons” (2) which in turn increase the amount of grey matter we have. And this is an excellent thing for brain health. The more grey matter we have, the more we can lose before the fundamental cognition of our brain is affected.
Both the increased grey matter and blood flow then goes to explain how Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PhD, of the University of British Columbia “has found that resistance training with weight improves cognition” which matches findings that show “similar benefits on cognition…in two clinical trials- one in the Journal of Alzheimer’s research, another in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry- among older adults randomized to participate in the traditional Chinese practise of tai chi” (3).
A healthier body-
Now it shouldn’t be news to anyone that exercise creates a healthier body, but why is this exactly?
Lets Start at the Heart of the Issue
Our heart, much like our biceps or our glutes, is a muscle. We want to make sure that our heart can pump blood around our body as efficiently and effectively as possible. Any exercise that makes our heart really pump is a fantastic way to improve our heart health! As we exercise it strengthens our heart, meaning we need less pumps per minute for the same amount of blood to flow, which then in effect lowers our blood pressure. And this is good news for our heart health. A 2013 study found that “higher levels of physical activity were associated with a 21 percent reduction in coronary heart disease (CHD) events for men and a 29 percent reduction of CHD events in women. Researchers concluded that higher fitness levels predict lower death rates and complications associated with cardiovascular disease.”
And it is not just our heart that gets stronger with exercise- our muscles and bones also benefit. After the age of 30 (yes only 30!) our muscle mass “decreases by 3-8% per decade” and this loss of muscle is cited to be “a fundamental cause of and contributor to disability in older people”. Any resistance training will do to build muscles. We may immediately think of weight lifting but we could could also include activities like calisthenics, pilates, swimming or boxing for example.
But exercise does not just give us strong muscles, it also helps to strengthen our bones. “Bone is living tissue, it changes over time in response to the forces placed upon it. When you exercise regularly, your bone adapts by building more bone and becoming denser.” The stronger our bones the less likely they are to fracture or break if we fall. Once again any weight-bearing exercise (performed in good form) will do, but activities like running or skipping perform exceptionally well to increase bone density as these are higher impact and therefor increase the weight on our bones.
Our muscles and bones keep us upright and moving. They are the foundation of our bodies. So it is so so important to start building the foundations of a healthy body through exercise, no matter your age!
Exercise is fun!
Exercise does not have to mean endless gruelling HIIT sessions or tedious hours on a treadmill. As long as we are moving our body any exercise is good. We could go to a Zumba class with friends, go rock-climbing, or even go for a swim in the sea. The possibilities are endless. All you need to do is move in a way that feels good for you! Exercise can also be a great way to spend time with friends or even meet new people. So why not take the time to try something new and see who you meet along the way!
Better Sleep and More energy
Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, has been cited as “an effective strategy to improve sleep quality and duration, as well as daytime wakefulness and vitality” (8).
In fact, The Sleep Foundation found that “in as little as four weeks, individuals with chronic insomnia who begin regular exercise can fall asleep up to 13 minutes faster and stay asleep 18 minutes longer. In fact, study authors found that exercise was just as effective as hypnotic drugs in relieving insomnia.”
Obviously getting more hours of higher quality sleep will improve our energy levels anyway in the day, but it also appears that exercise generally increases our overall feelings of wakefulness. In a recent study, this energy boost was clear. The researchers took “nearly 100 college students who reported feeling fatigued and burned out. Half of the participants were instructed to run three times a week for six weeks; the other group was told not to change their workout habits. At the end of the study, the running group reported less overall fatigue than the control group.”
Decreased Stress Levels
Now anyone who is in the gym after a hard day at work will tell you that exercise is a real stress destroyer. When we feel stressed, channelling this stressed energy into exercise is a fantastic way to improve our mood and can serve as “an effective component of a stress management program”. In essence exercise can be a great distractor for ‘bad stress’.
In the paper “Physical Exercise Prevents Stress-Induced Activation of Granule Neurons and Enhances Local Inhibitory Mechanisms in the Dentate Gyrus,” scientists researched to see if exercise had any effect of the levels of stress felt by mice. And the findings indicated that the brains of the physically active and the sedentary mice seemed to act very differently to the same stressor. In short, the physically active mice were less affected by outside stressors than the inactive mice. This finding seems to suggest that exercise increases our brain resilience, and in effect makes us less vulnerable to stress in our everyday life.
And if I haven’t convinced you by now, could I tempt you with a better immune system?
Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist, states that exercise is amongst one of the most important factors in decreasing our number of sick days: “Moderate aerobic exercise- around 30 to 45 minutes a day of activites like walking, biking or running- can more that halve your risk of both catching a cold or flu and other common winter maladies” (4). And it doesn’t stop there, certain immune functions “like NK cells, which deals with viral infections and cancer surveillance, increase tenfold after just one bout of exercise” (5).
Now it is tempting to spend the rest of your life on a treadmill after reading that, but it is important not to over-do it as “moderate exercisers have the strongest immunity”(6) in comparison to endurance athletes.
Creating confidence and self belief
And lastly, exercise is a great way to improve our confidence and build self-belief. And no, this confidence does not have to gained from realising how good your butt looks after those squats.
Exercise is a great place to start setting goals.
Achieving goals in the outside world can get a bit tricky, as a lot of the time it is dependant on outside factors, like if your boss wants to give you a promotion or the economy. However fitness goals really just rely on you.
Want to lift heavier? All you need is the determination, practise and effort to do it. Accomplishments in fitness are also very tangible. It is a lot easier to see that you can run faster than it is to see if you are a better painter.
And for this reason exercise builds confidence. You can easily and tangibly see your successes and your improvements in front of you. Exercise shows you with first hand evidnece that you are becoming stronger, fitter and more resilient.
After all, there is nothing quite like being able to do something previously unimaginable without even breaking a sweat. When you work out you can really prove to yourself what you are made of.
Exercise as self care
And for this reason, exercise has become part of my self-care. It is my me-time, where I can relax, focus on myself and truly have fun. It has become an expression of self-love, as I am doing it to look after my mind, my body and my future.
I no longer look at the people in the gym and think they are all there to hone a perfect six pack. I know that for these gym-goers it has become a ritual, a part of their identity and an act of self-care.
So, as I tie my hair up into a bouncy ponytail, slide into some lycra, and put on the ugliest running shoes known to man it makes me chuckle. I’m sure if the teenage Ramblings could see me now she would be shocked. I suppose I have become one of the ‘fit people’.
Song of the day
This weeks song of the day is my current favourite song to work out to Riton x Nightcrawlers – Friday ft. Mufasa & Hypeman (Dopamine Re-Edit) – it is such a bop!
(1) Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon, Rahul Jandial, page 217
(2) Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon ,Rahul Jandial, page 197
(3) Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon, Rahul Jandial, page 224
(4) Immunity: The Science of Staying Well, Dr Jenna Macciochi, page 198
(5) Immunity: The Science of Staying Well, Dr Jenna Macciochi, page 199
(6) Immunity: The Science of Staying Well, Dr Jenna Macciochi page 229
(7) Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon, Rahul Jandial, page 220
(8) Immunity: The Science of Staying Well, Dr Jenna Macciochi, page 138
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