Most people are aware of the health benefits of exercise on the heart and how it can help build muscle and reduce body fat percentage. But there are many additional benefits which are less well known. Bone health is one of these things. Like muscle, bone is dynamic and will adapt to the level of use it is subjected to, becoming stronger with impact and weight bearing. This is particularly pertinent to women who are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis than men.
Sleep is also positively affected by exercise. This is a powerful benefit because so much repair and maintenance happens when we are asleep that not getting enough quality sleep can mean that maintenance jobs go unfinished and can contribute to inflammation in the body. Exercise has also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and improve mood. This is in part because over time, training can better calibrate the body to cortisol and adrenalin, meaning that less of these hormones need be released. But may also be partly because of a reduction in inflammation in the brain.
The immune system is still nowhere near fully understood, but what we do know about the immune response however, shows it is incredible. It is both broad, yet highly specific and nuanced, differentiating between bacteria that can kill us and those that are harmless.
Our defences are comprised of a system of cells and a cascade of processes ¬¬–from pathogen-eating white blood cells, to inflammation – that work together to protect us from external antigens (like bacteria and viruses) as well as threats that arise internally like tumours.
However, sometimes our this system that has developed to protect us, can work against us. The defining diseases of our times like cancer, diabetes and heart disease are all inflammatory conditions and arise from an over-reaction of the immune system. A healthy immune system, using an acute inflammatory response will help protect us from all sorts of pathogenic invaders, and if we do come down with an illness, will help us recover from it swiftly. But if inflammation spills over from acute and becomes chronic it can cause collateral damage to our cells which can lead to disease.
Research has shown us that diet and lifestyle have a significant effect on the proper functioning of the immune system, managing inflammation in the body and keeping it in check. One of the key factors is exercise.
Although there is still much we don’t know, exercise seems to start a positive cycle that keeps chronic inflammation low in several ways. Firstly it encourages blood flow and a more ‘in-tune’ immune system by temporarily increasing the levels of circulating white blood cells on the look-out for pathogens. Improvements in sleep as seen above reduces inflammation by reducing the amount of stress the body is under. The immune system, like everything else in our body, becomes less effective with age yet exercise appears to protect against these age-related changes.
However, more exercise doesn’t necessarily mean more benefits. The research shows that there are limits and too much arduous exercise may in fact supress immunity. But it is generally agreed that regular moderate exercise or short durations of high intensity exercise, along with a balanced diet and quality sleep can benefit us hugely.