Surprising benefits of exercise for your body (there are plenty)

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We get it. You’re constantly being told that you should exercise for the sake of your health. This lifestyle recommendation is consistently placed at the top of every list—right after ‘eat healthy foods.’  When you get down to the nitty-gritty, though, it’s no wonder exercise is emphasized so much. Not getting enough physical activity comes with high costs. Costs for your health and your finances. It’s also associated with a wide range of “modern diseases”, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  

A sad current state of affairs

Unfortunately, exercise isn’t a part of many people’s agenda. In the USA, only 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.[1] This isn’t just an American problem, though. Insufficient levels of physical activity are prevalent worldwide, with almost two-thirds of adults and 80% of the young population in Europe falling short of the minimum recommended amounts of exercise.[2]

Even worse: 

Lack of physical activity is related to approximately 3 million deaths per year, in addition to 6–10% of cases of major, non-communicable diseases.[3]

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at what exercise does for the body, which body functions it enhances, and how the menstrual cycle impacts energy levels.
We don’t have a detailed workout plan for you, but after reading this article, we hope you have some ideas about what you can do to move more and why it’s important.

Exercise: more than just a weight-loss tool

While we all know that exercise promotes weight loss, it does a whole lot more than just that. It can reduce the frequency and severity of cardiovascular disease, improve strength and mobility, and even improve bone density. Plus, it helps people sleep better and longer—which in itself can lead to better health. 

Did you know?  Lack of exercise has been linked to not one, not two, but a whopping 35 chronic diseases.[4] In fact, studies show a strong association between exercise and reduced rates of death from any cause.[5-7] Increased physical activity has even been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and to reduce the risk for certain types of cancer[8].

Exercise can be especially beneficial for women

Many women are looking to lose weight post-pregnancy or during menopause.  Physical activity can be a valuable tool to reach that goal. 

What may be new to you is that it also helps to maintain bone density and prevents osteoporosis, which hits postmenopausal women particularly hard. In fact, the prevalence of osteoporosis in women over the age of 50 years is 3–4x greater than in men[9].

Women can notice that the energy levels for their workout correlate with the phases of their menstrual cycle. This can be explained by the changing hormone levels throughout the different menstrual phases[10].

The cycle can be divided into 4 main phases: menstruation or early follicular phase, late follicular phase , ovulation and the luteal phase. During the first phase, the menstruation phase, the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest. Estrogen rises gradually though g the follicular phase, which marks the first half of the menstrual cycle.  During that phase it may be easier to get active than in the previous weeks. During the follicular phase, the metabolism of women is very similar to men. A study showed that women in the fasted state perform better in the follicular than in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. 

In the week after the menstruation ends, the late follicular phase, estrogen and testosterone levels begin rising quickly in preparation for ovulation (releasing an egg from the ovary). This is why energy levels and perceived strength might begin to increase. 

Around the time of ovulation, estrogen levels peak. Which is about two weeks before the next period for most women.. During the luteal phase when estrogen levels fall quickly after ovulation and progesterone levels begin rising, women may feel more tired or sluggish than usual. This does not mean that they should not exercise. In fact, being active might be a great mood booster and give more energy.

In the week before the next period (late luteal phase), women's bodies need more energy (it increases about 90-280 kcal). This higher amount of needed energy can lead to cravings and mood swings. It seems that estrogen is responsible for increasing energy intake during this phase. Well, it has been hypothesized that estrogens reduce appetite and energy intake and during the late luteal phase estrogen achieves its lower levels. On the other hand,women notice that their heart rate before their exercise will be higher during the second half of their cycle.[11] This observation is due to the progesterone peak. It’s also likely that exercising itself feels harder. However, physical activity may help premenstrual symptoms (PMS) get better even if energy levels are low.

In other words, women may notice that their perceived energy levels, and the willingness to work out change, but the immediate benefits of physical activity should be encouraging enough to at least get some steps in.

How our body adapts when we exercise

So we talked about energy levels, but what actually happens to the body when we perform some exercise?

When we’re working out, our body adapts to the positive stress that exercise induces. Yes, exercise is stressful to our bodies. But in a positive way. This adaptation comes in many forms: While it looks like only our muscles are working, many other tissues and organs are in fact working to support them. Every person functions much like an orchestra where every instrument plays its part. 

Exercise equals energy

Have you ever found yourself in a situation that you are tired after your hard day of work, even though you’ve “only been sitting” at your desk? We feel you, working out after an exhausting day, doesn’t sound very appealing, but…. Exercising more actually does give you more energy! Or if you need some energy to start the day: It has been shown that exercising first thing in the morning can be key to wake you up. 

So the next time you feel tired after work, change into your workout gear and get moving to resist the temptation of your couch.

Besides the energy boost let’s talk about some of the other benefits of physical exercise:
You may have heard, or experienced yourself, that you lose weight when working out but eating the same. Increased physical activity causes our bodies to accumulate less fat and use up more of our existing fat for energy. This is especially true when practicing moderate intensity endurance training since your heartbeat is elevated for longer periods of time. 

During short periods of activity and high-intensity exercise, muscles rely predominantly on stores of energy within themselves. But when exercise is sustained over a longer period, a larger supply of energy from outside the muscle is required. This is where the liver comes into play.

The liver and the muscles utilize a well-controlled system of communication to maintain metabolic balance during exercise. The process relies on both organs, along with the pancreas ( the organ responsible for secreting insulin) to regulate blood glucose and insulin and keep those muscles going. 

But that’s not all. It’s not only the big muscles and your blood glucose that benefit from exercise. The advantages of physical activity extend to the cardiovascular system as well, improving the function of the endothelium—a thin membrane that lines the inside of the heart and blood vessels. Exercise reduces resting blood pressure and heart rate improves blood flow, and enlarges the microvascular network as it forms new blood vessels and arteries.

Exercise ensures that your blood keeps flowing 

When looking at your blood report you or your doctor will notice the following positive results when you are exercising more:

  • Reduced triglyceride levels, increased HDL cholesterol levels (the good kind of cholesterol!) and decreased LDL-to-HDL ratios; 
  • Reduced blood pressure, improved heart flow and decreased blood clotting;
  • Lower levels of inflammation in the body. 

All of these are common risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and exercise has been proven to counteract them.

Lean into your (insulin) sensitive side

But regular exercise can impact more than just your heart health. Since we at HELLO INSIDE believe that optimal glucose levels help to perform your best, we’d like to take a closer look at the relationship between physical activity and your blood glucose levels

Blood sugar balance

Exercise has a huge impact on your blood sugar management by enhancing insulin sensitivity, among other effects. High levels of sensitivity allow your body to utilize blood glucose more efficiently, and research shows that the insulin sensitivity of muscle is increased for up to 48 hours following just a single bout of exercise. Exercise is truly a valuable alternative to a medication when it comes to normalizing blood sugar levels.

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone is unique, and glucose levels are dependent on a number of factors. The results of exercise can vary depending on the type, duration, and intensity, as well as your diet and overall health status. The relationship is complex, which makes monitoring blood glucose such an effective tool.

Do you want to learn more about the adaptation process your body goes through when performing exercise? Here is a compelling review of the topic.   

How regular exercise helps improve your psychological well being 

We already talked about the benefits of exercise after a rough day. But we can’t emphasize it enough. If you want to reduce stress, you could engage in deep breathing or meditation…or you could get some exercise! You might not have heard about this, but routine physical activity is actually associated with reduced anxiety and depression.[12]

Still not convinced that some form of sports after an exhausting day at work will make you happier? Maybe you need to know that exercise helps to reduce levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline, serotonin  and cortisol[13] which are known to cause excitement, increase pleasure, and raise affect. On the other hand adrenaline stimulates the production of endorphins, our body's natural painkiller, and mood enhancer.[14]

No need to run a marathon

We hope this blog post has shown you that regular physical activity is one of the key components of a healthy lifestyle. If you’re just getting started on your exercise journey, though, don’t sweat it! The key is to start low and go slow. Your blood glucose and long-term health will thank you. 

A daily threshold of 3500 steps or more per day (at least 20 minutes of walking) is already a great start on protecting your health and controlling your blood glucose levels. And if you’re feeling more ambitious, just 150 minutes per week (that’s 2.5 hours in total) of moderate to vigorous physical activity can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by 30%.[15] Just like different forms of exercise have a different impact on your heart rate and muscles, they also impact your blood glucose to different extents.

If you aren’t used to moving at all, here are a few tips to get going.

  • Walking is a great place to begin, and easy to fit in while running errands or going about your daily activities. What about getting off the bus/ tram one stop earlier and walk home? Who says you always have to walk the shortest distance to your office? Why not take a little detour and see what has happened in your neighborhood before you buy the groceries? 
  • We are pretty sure that you have a friend who’d like to become more active too. Why not give them a call and meet for a walk instead of a coffee. You could even schedule regular get-togethers that help you create a routine for your overall health. 
  •  If you’re sitting down for a while, try getting up more often to grab a glass of water and walk around your workspace. Or if you can walk around your apartment when you call your mum or friend the next time.  
  • Or, maybe there’s a sport that you loved doing as a child and haven’t kept up with in ages. It’s never too late to give it another shot!

Be kind to yourself, and keep in mind that exercise does not have to be vigorous to be impactful. Even a brisk walk in the morning or after dinner can make a big difference to your health, and you’ll be surprised how much better you feel. It’s not about being perfect, but there’s always room for improvement when it comes to physical activity. Whether you’re exercising too much or too little, monitoring and understanding your blood glucose response will help you balance your unique and healthy lifestyle. 

Whatever you choose to do, remember: our bodies were made to move. By staying true to that, you’re making a smart investment in your lifelong health.

 


[1] Lack of Physical Activity. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Updated September 25, 2019. Accessed 14.09.2021. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/physical-activity.htm

[2] Hallal PC, Andersen LB, Bull FC, et al. Global physical activity levels: surveillance progress, pitfalls, and prospects. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):247-257. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60646-1

[3] Lim SS, Vos T, Flaxman AD, et al. A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990-2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 [published correction appears in Lancet. 2013 Apr 13;381(9874):1276] [published correction appears in Lancet. 2013 Feb 23;381(9867):628. AlMazroa, Mohammad A [added]; Memish, Ziad A [added]]. Lancet. 2012;380(9859):2224-2260. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61766-8

[4] Booth FW, Roberts CK, Thyfault JP, Ruegsegger GN, Toedebusch RG. Role of Inactivity in Chronic Diseases: Evolutionary Insight and Pathophysiological Mechanisms. Physiol Rev. 2017;97(4):1351-1402. doi:10.1152/physrev.00019.2016

[5] Blair SN, Cheng Y, Holder JS. Is physical activity or physical fitness more important in defining health benefits?. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001;33(6 Suppl):S379-S420. doi:10.1097/00005768-200106001-00007

[6] Kohl HW 3rd. Physical activity and cardiovascular disease: evidence for a dose response. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001;33(6 Suppl):S472-S494. doi:10.1097/00005768-200106001-00017

[7] Berlin JA, Colditz GA. A meta-analysis of physical activity in the prevention of coronary heart disease. Am J Epidemiol. 1990;132(4):612-628. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a115704

[8] Reiner M, Niermann C, Jekauc D, Woll A. Long-term health benefits of physical activity--a systematic review of longitudinal studies. BMC Public Health. 2013;13:813. Published 2013 Sep 8. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-813

[9] Bandela V, Munagapati B, Karnati RK, Venkata GR, Nidudhur SR. Osteoporosis: Its Prosthodontic Considerations - A Review. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015;9(12):ZE01-ZE4. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2015/14275.6874

[10] Davidsen L, Vistisen B, Astrup A. Impact of the menstrual cycle on determinants of energy balance: a putative role in weight loss attempts. Int J Obes (Lond). 2007;31(12):1777-1785. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803699

[11] Bandyopadhyay A, Dalui R. Endurance capacity and cardiorespiratory responses in sedentary females during different phases of menstrual cycle. Kathmandu Univ Med J (KUMJ). 2012;10(40):25-29. doi:10.3126/kumj.v10i4.10990

[12] Mammen G, Faulkner G. Physical activity and the prevention of depression: a systematic review of prospective studies. Am J Prev Med. 2013;45(5):649-657. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2013.08.001

[13] Sul, S., Moon, H. Changes in affect from mid-intensity exercise. J Incl Phenom Macrocycl Chem (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10847-021-01077-3

[14] Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, et al. The runner's high: opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Cereb Cortex. 2008;18(11):2523-2531. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhn013

[15] Tudor-Locke C, Schuna JM Jr. Steps to preventing type 2 diabetes: exercise, walk more, or sit less?. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2012;3:142. Published 2012 Nov 19. doi:10.3389/fendo.2012.00142