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Move with the Rhythm 1: Feeling Good Today
Our bodies are designed for movement. They need to move, and they love to move.
Body movement provides stimulation, encourages regeneration, and enhances flow & communication through all parts of the system. Our only in-built requirement for inactivity is the long period of sleep, and this is actually a highly productive time of inner activity, integration and repair.
Biochemical conditions change when we sleep, to support this unmoving state, but for a waking body, which is primed to move, long periods of inactivity (or minimal activity) are detrimental.
A Complex Physiology
Our body-design is such that most mechanical & biochemical systems have components which either rely on body movement for proper function, or are enhanced by body movement.
For example, the lymphatic system (‘the other circulation’ involved in things like waste removal and immune cell transport) has no heart-pump to keep it flowing, and relies on a variety of mechanisms to push contents along.
A major mechanism for this is the rhythmic contraction & relaxation of surrounding muscles which occurs naturally as you move your body about. In this context, a body that doesn’t move regularly will gradually ‘stagnate’.
Another example is the increased brain serotonin activity which occurs in association with body movement.
In mood disturbances like depression & anxiety, brain levels of this ‘feel-good & feel-capable’ neurotransmitter are often insufficient. A single bout of exercise can provide an immediate reduction in symptoms of both depression and anxiety, while ongoing regular activity can encourage more permanent improvements. In fact, one large study looking at ‘amount of physical activity’ in general, rather than specific types of exercise, found that more active people tend to be happier people.
The researchers also suggested that this influence may work both ways, where being active makes us feel good and feeling good makes us more active.
Considering the synchronous release of serotonin with body movement, this two-way interaction seems logical. It also means that we may just as easily spiral down in the opposite direction, where not feeling good reduces our desire to get out and do stuff, and the subsequent inactivity reduces our mood further. As difficult as getting out for that first walk may be, it can be the catalyst to a brighter path which gets easier with every day.
Feeling Good Tomorrow
The greatest impact of routine physical activity (or inactivity) lies in its cumulative effects.
Being regularly active in the long-term, particularly if you challenge your body & mind in a variety of ways, enhances your overall fitness. Maintaining your fitness not only keeps disease & deterioration at bay, but also enables you to continue being active, feeling confident & capable, and being stimulated by and interested in life.
On the other hand, with every drop in routine activity, your fitness levels gradually reduce, along with your ability to be active and independent, and your willingness to embrace challenge. This gradually leads to stagnation and disease, in both body and mind, and a reduced quality of life.
A sedentary lifestyle is associated with ‘early ageing’ and the development of a wide range of chronic illnesses, as well increasing the risk of early death from disease.
There is a wealth of research now, which clearly shows that regular physical activity both prevents and supports recovery from all kinds of conditions, including things like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and cancer.
One long-term study revealed that people who preferred inactive leisure activities (like watching TV, computer, etc), doing less than the equivalent of 2 hours brisk walking per week, had the highest levels of a range of body chemicals associated with the development of disease. Those who engaged in mostly physical leisure activities (amounting to 20 hours brisk walking per week, or more) had the lowest levels, while everyone else fell somewhere in between.
Body movement exerts its protective effect in many different ways, like improving muscle metabolism, strengthening immune function, reducing inflammation, improving blood flow & oxygen supply, reducing blood pressure, stimulating body detox, balancing hormone systems, lifting mood & reducing stress, inhibiting junk food & cigarette cravings, and improving sleep, to name just a few.
Statistically, there is a direct linear relationship between physical activity and long-term health, showing that the less active you are (meaning the less fit you are), the greater your risk of chronic disease and early death. Conversely, the more active you are, the higher your chances of surviving into old age with your body & mind in good working order.
Every small increase in your level of routine physical activity adds greater protection.
There is more than enough evidence to show that, regardless of your current age, state-of-health, genetic predisposition, diet or ‘bad habits’, increasing your level of regular physical activity, by any degree, will generate immediate and long-term improvements in your current condition and quality of life.
In fact, people who have a higher natural predisposition to developing certain diseases (through genetic or family traits) actually have a lower chance of developing these diseases if they continue to be physically active, compared with people who are not predisposed but simply have a sedentary lifestyle.
Even being overweight is not a deciding factor, with studies showing that obese people who are fit & active have a 50-75% lower mortality risk than people who have ‘normal weight’ but are unfit.
So much of what your body will become later is determined by your actions now, so get on the move today, with activities that stimulate both body & mind, to create a brighter, more beautiful tomorrow.
Is it tomorrow already?
For those of you already in your golden years, the same applies. You can still improve you’re your experience of the days ahead by being more active now.
Due to the natural decline in tissue regeneration as we age, the older you get, the less likely it is that your body will show the obvious changes (such as sculpted muscles) that we commonly associate with getting fit. However, despite this lack of ‘visible evidence’, regular physical activity still encourages metabolic changes and improvements in musculoskeletal function which help prevent, reverse or slow age-related health problems, and enhance ongoing independence and quality of life.
It’s never too late to become more active in your daily routines, even if you’re unlikely to ever see a six-pack in the mirror again!
One study, for example, showed that 75-85 year-olds with osteoporosis were able to increase bone density significantly (reducing the risk of fractures) with six short months of resistance activity, while others have shown that 3-6 months of regular aerobic activity in the elderly enhances muscle oxidative activity (which equates to increased energy, power & endurance). A similar period of resistance activity helps reduce the natural muscle loss associated with ageing.
In relation to the expected age-related decline in cognitive abilities, just a year of aerobic training in older people was shown to stimulate changes in brain chemistry associated with improved mental function, and better memory.
Even ‘quiet’ activities like tai chi & yoga can improve health & fitness in the elderly.
Patients in their 60s with chronic heart failure were able to not only stabilize their condition (improved health) but actually increase their exercise capacity (greater fitness) with only 3 months of tai chi practice.
Being an activity which involves continual postural changes and joint rotation, tai chi encourages core muscle strength, flexibility, and the ability to maintain postural stability & balance through changes in brain-body motor communication. In frail elderly people, regular tai chi practice was found to reduce the risk of falls by nearly 50%, and, like resistance training, it led to improved bone density. It was also found to improve range-of-motion, reduce pain, and slow deterioration in osteoarthritic joints. Other benefits of just 3-6 months tai chi practice in the elderly include reduced blood pressure and enhanced immune function.
It is clear that age is no barrier to quality of life and ongoing physical independence, and positive changes can be experienced in a very short time.
Find activities you can manage and take pleasure in. Keep moving, doing, exploring and discovering, and enjoy your days to the last.
Feeling Good Today
If the idea of feeling good tomorrow doesn’t motivate you, consider the many immediate blessings to be had, right now, from a single bout of physical activity.
The act of moving the body, in itself, creates a wide variety of physiological shifts. Sometimes these occur during and/or immediately following the period of movement (eg. immune stimulation), and may continue for an extended period after the activity ceases (eg. accelerated metabolic rate). At other times the period of movement initiates changes whose positive effects are not experienced until much later in the day (eg. better sleep).
There can also be additional blessings associated with the nature of the activity and your experience of it, such as the rise in self-esteem after successfully painting a room, or appetite stimulation (improving digestion) while preparing a meal.
Lift your mood
Physical activity generates a mood-lift which can persist for some time after, but we actually feel happiest during the time that we are moving.
As mentioned earlier, a single bout of exercise can provide an immediate improvement in symptoms of both depression & anxiety, as well as having a more lasting effect. For example, studies in people suffering insomnia show that people feel much less pre-sleep anxiety following a bout of moderate aerobic activity earlier in the day.
Such benefits are not limited to exercise sessions, as such, with people shown to feel better all-round (less tension, depression, anxiety, anger, confusion) after doing some tai chi or yoga, or taking a walk in the park. In fact, a study of desk-bound office workers found that the people who got up and just ‘moved about’ for 5 minutes each hour reported a better mood, at the end of the day, than those who actually did do 30 min aerobic session with the rest of the time spent at their desks.
As nothing in life stands alone, however, the immediate feel-good impact of body movement will be tempered by your perceptions.
If your activity at the time happens to be unpleasant (eg. you don’t want to be doing it, or feel pain & discomfort, or have unpleasant company), then your negative thoughts & feelings may well cancel any positive lift created by the movement itself. But, because physical activity also reduces the perception of stress, allowing you to feel more capable (‘I can handle this’) and less overwhelmed, you’d probably have a worse response to a difficult situation if it did not involve body movement. In a nutshell, if you find yourself feeling flat, frustrated or foggy-headed, just move your body for a while to shift your perception.
Sleep like a baby
Your mood is also impacted by the quality of your sleep, and getting active can help from this angle as well.
In fact, diet, physical activity and sleep are the golden triangle at the foundation of body-mind health, and interact in complex ways. Any one of the three, when in good function, will positively influence the other two. Likewise, poor quality in one area will reduce the quality of the others.
Sleeping well improves health in so many different ways, and being physically active improves sleep quality. So, when you get active, you not only get the benefits that result directly from body movement, but also a whole range of indirect blessings that stem from its positive influence on sleep.
Sleep is a time for recovery from the day’s wear & tear on the body, (NREM, deep sleep) and mental integration of the day’s experiences (REM, dreaming).
If sleep quality is poor, the effectiveness of these repair, detox & organising functions is reduced, making us less able, physically & mentally, to deal with the coming day. The effects of this reduced resilience give the body even more restorative work to do the next night. Ongoing poor quality sleep creates a downward spiral in both mental & physical health, as a progressively more burdened body-mind becomes less able to effectively handle each coming day.
While regular physical activity enhances your overall sleep quality in the long-term, most people know, from experience, that a single physically active day also results in a better sleep that same night.
In studies exploring both insomniacs and ‘normal’ sleepers, day-time activity was found to help people fall asleep more easily, sleep longer, and have a deeper, less interrupted sleep, while enhancing the functional quality of both deep sleep (restoring the body) & dreamtime (restoring the mind).
In a broad sense, the period of sleep allows the body to re-set itself, bringing various biochemical functions back into a normal, stable range, after a day’s disruptions. But sleep is not the only warrior in preventing disease and, if your diet and lifestyle are unsupportive, there is only so much a good sleep can do.
Ongoing biochemical disruptions develop gradually ‘on the inside’ before a disease condition eventually shows itself. Some of the common pre-disease markers in society today are poor immune function, high blood pressure, disturbed blood lipid profiles (eg. cholesterol), and insulin resistance (poor blood glucose management).
Like ongoing good quality sleep, regular physical activity is shown to help bring all these disturbances ‘back into line’ over the longer term. However, a single session of moderate-intensity activity (dynamic movement like brisk walking or dancing or digging in the garden) can also generate immediate improvements and, while any of these markers remains in an ‘improved state’, it is not contributing to your body’s degeneration.
For example, working muscles encourage removal of glucose from the bloodstream but don’t call on insulin to do this, meaning that physical activity can reduce blood glucose levels in diabetics and people who are insulin-resistant.
Moderate activity mobilises the immune system in ways which are protective, both immediately and for an extended period. Aside from hidden benefits, like its anti-inflammatory effects, this immune stimulation increases your resilience against infections, meaning you’re less likely to come down with a cold (or worse) if someone sneezes on you.
A bout of exercise also creates an immediate reduction in levels of total blood lipids, while at the same time improving the ratio of high-density (friendly) to low density (not-so-friendly) lipoproteins.
Blood pressure is another key marker. It naturally rises when the body is moving about, but when physical activity slows, it should naturally drop back to normal (resting) levels. For people who suffer chronic high blood pressure at rest (when they’re not moving about) a good bout of exercise can help reduce their resting blood pressure and keep it down for the rest of the day.
But weight, there’s more …
Obesity is another pre-disposing factor for the development of various chronic diseases, and is associated with many of the imbalances described above.
On the surface, the weight management equation is simple. If the amount of energy (food Calories) going in equals the energy used by your body to (1) run its basic metabolic functions, plus (2) move about, your weight will not change.
If you eat more calories than you need, the extra energy will be stored as fat (weight gain).
If you eat less than you need, your body will ‘burn up’ some of the stored fat as fuel to make up the deficit (weight loss).
Dieting only works to a certain point because, if you don’t bring in the required amount of nutrients your body needs to do its work of keeping you healthy, then you may become thin but you will get sick. Making nutrient-rich food choices (rather than ‘dieting’) works together with daily physical activity to keep you in a healthy weight range.
The immediate effect of exercise, in this respect, is that while you are moving, you’re burning calories, so the more you move and the harder you make your body work, the more calories you will burn.
By this logic, your calorie use will slow down when you sit down at your desk or in front of the TV. But this is where physical activity has a couple of hidden blessings for those wanting to lose weight.
A good long session of aerobic activity (working moderately hard for 30-90 minutes) kicks the body into ‘fat-burning’ mode, where it draws from your fat-stores for fuel, not only while the activity continues, but also for several hours after, and potentially into the next day.
Many factors affect the degree to which this occurs, and how long it lasts, so this varies from person to person, but every person will experience this shift.
The second effect is an increase in resting metabolic rate.
Your metabolic rate determines how much energy (calories) your body uses in basic body maintenance (at rest). If your metabolic rate is too slow, less fuel is required, and you’re more likely to gain weight, so a bit of stimulation in this respect is a bonus.
Physical activity generates an immediate rise in metabolic rate which continues for up to 2 hours following the activity. It then gradually slows, but can still remain higher than your usual ‘no-activity’ metabolic rate, for up to a day or even two. Thus, a good bout of activity can keep your metabolism pumping, so you burn a more calories than you normally would, even while watching TV.
Aside from the ‘endurance work’, regular short burst of activity can also contribute to your weight-loss program by helping keep junk-food cravings at bay. This positive effect is found with other addictive habits (like cigarette smoking) as well, so having a physically-active daily routine is a key support for anyone trying to break ‘bad habits’.
While change takes time, this supportive effect is immediate, occurring with each individual session, and lasting for a time afterwards. For example, a single 15 minute brisk walk, or a harder 5 minute session on a stationary bike, is shown to reduce both physical cravings and attentional bias (thinking about & wanting), as well as helping ease withdrawal symptoms.
Even when challenged with the object of addiction, such a being given a chocolate bar or a lit cigarette, those people who had done some activity had a much weaker addictive response than the people who just sat around.
While a single bout of activity can provide immediate support, regular activity is shown to confer a more permanent change, by strengthening willpower & restraint. This diminishes temptations to return to the habit (as with ex-smokers) and enables you to make better food choices over time.
It is clear that a physically active lifestyle is integral to health in so many different ways, so get off your chair, pick up your feet and wiggle your hips!
Allow each movement to help you ‘feel better today’, while the blessings accumulate to deliver you a more beautiful tomorrow.
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