ADVICE

10 ways exercise is the best natural medicine

Man on stationary bike in spin class

Healthy Food Guide founding editor Niki Bezzant takes a look at how exercise can improve all aspects of our health and is the best natural medicine.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing experts on all sorts of health-related topics. I wish I had kept count of every time one of those experts has said to me words to the effect of: “I wish I had a pill that did what exercise does”. The reasons they say this are many; here are just a few.

1 Exercise is good for our mood and mental health.

There’s lots of evidence moving our bodies will also help our heads. Getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week has been shown to improve mood and decrease anxiety and stress. Physical activity is also associated with decreased feelings of depression.

2 Exercise protects our joints and bones

Regular exercise helps us maintain muscle mass, and puts (good) stress on our joints, both of which help protect our bones and keep them strong as we get older. When we’re younger, exercise helps build bone mass. Load-bearing exercise is key; exercise like running or walking or other activities that put stress through the bone stimulate bone-forming cells and slow down bone loss.

3 Exercise helps us control weight as we age

Maintaining muscle mass helps us burn more energy: muscle burns more energy than fat, even when we’re at rest. Weights are our friend here – working hard with weights can build and maintain muscle; just make sure you’re eating enough protein as well, to maintain the gains.

4 Exercise helps us sleep

Moving our bodies in the daytime helps us sleep at night. How? First, exercise raises our body temperature, allowing it to cool later on when it’s time for bed (we need to be cooler to sleep well). Second, if you exercise outside in the morning, exposing your eyes to morning light, you’re increasing serotonin and suppressing melatonin, which wakes us up. That serotonin converts to melatonin later in the day, helping us get off to sleep.

5 Exercise improves our skin

Our skin health reflects our overall health, and exercise improves overall health – so it will show in your face. Exercise also increases blood flow and the body’s natural production of antioxidants, potentially delaying the appearance of skin ageing.

6 Exercise improves menopause symptoms

Regular exercise has been found to reduce the incidence and severity of hot flushes at menopause. It also contributes to weight maintenance, and being a healthy weight is associated with fewer menopause symptoms overall.

7 Exercise lowers our risk of disease

The list of diseases regular exercise protects us from is impressive. It includes heart disease, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

8 Exercise connects us with nature

Getting outside for a walk, run, swim or bike gets us into nature which helps us feel calmer, happier and better. As above, doing this in the morning also helps us sleep like babies later.

9 Exercise keeps our brains sharp

Exercise is super important in protecting our brains from cognitive decline as we age, and even more importantly, is associated with a significant lowering of our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

10 Exercise helps us relieve pain

Exercise is the preferred treatment for many pain conditions, including osteoarthritis, lower back pain and fibromyalgia. If you’re sore, chances are moving, rather than resting, will help more in the long term.

First published: Jun 2021

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