Do we need to work out?
I’m sure many of you will have read the title of this article and thought, “What sort of question is that coming from a doctor? Of course we need to work out.” And you’d be right to think that. There are some very obvious reasons for committing to a regular physical fitness routine, and we’re going to touch on them in this article.
Before starting it is important to clear up some common misconceptions that people have about working out. Example: How often have you or one of your friends said, “I’m a bit heavier than usual now, but as soon as I am able to get back into my gym routine I will start shedding those pounds.”?
Let’s just bust this myth upfront: regular workouts – an hour in the gym several times a week – are not going to do all that much to help you shed those unwanted pounds if you are not eating well. That’s right, fitness has far less to do with weight loss than you think.
So, with that out of the way, let’s start by taking a look at exactly what a thorough workout does for your body – from the obvious benefits through to some you may not have thought of. We will then shift and detail what a workout does not do for you.
The most obvious benefit men think of when we talk about ‘hitting the gym’ is building muscle. For many people, muscle development is all about aesthetics — and there is no harm in wanting a toned body — but strong muscles offer benefits way beyond a beach-ready bod.
For one, building muscle around our joints causes our ligaments and tendons, which essentially hold us together, to grow stronger, giving greater stability and durability to our bodies and helping us to avoid common injuries such as twists and sprains.
There’s also the matter of strength, and I’m not just talking about the amount you can press. Our skeletal strength is improved through weight training, and this can have a significant bearing on our quality of life, particularly as we get older. It helps us with general physical movement, it works to reduce common aches and pains, and it generally improves stamina while combatting fatigue.
Resistance exercise is in fact the key to preventing osteoporosis, and so it is even more important to work into your training routine as you get older. And low back pain, which is a true epidemic today, can be largely prevented by staying active and incorporating resistance exercises.
Another benefit that should be mentioned, with respect to building muscle mass, is that it generates mitochondrial biogenesis. More mitochondria helps burn sugar and lower insulin levels. As we know, chronically high insulin levels are the main cause of cardiometabolic disease, and lowering of insulin levels will provide some support for weight control.
Finally, it’s worth noting that muscles may even help you live longer. That’s right, a recent study by Tufts University in Massachusetts found that muscle mass – more so than either healthy blood pressure or cholesterol levels – was a top biomarker for longevity.
Cardiovascular health and disease prevention
A regular workout also has a tremendous effect on our most important muscle, the heart (and the entire cardiovascular system for that matter). The first great benefit is the increase in our fitness levels, which is a result of the heart having to work less to meet the demands for oxygenated blood. Essentially, when we work out regularly, we give our heart a chance to grow stronger, meaning it pumps more blood per beat, which in turn allows it to beat more slowly. The effect of this in our daily lives is that the heart does not have to work as hard to get the blood flowing around our bodies, meaning we become tired less quickly and can expend energy for longer periods.
A fit and healthy heart is going to do the world of good for your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Not only does regular exercise trigger enzyme activity which helps to de-clog the arteries and transfer cholesterol from blood vessels to the liver for excretion, but with more oxygen and less waste products in the blood it is also able to flow more freely through the body, lowering blood pressure.
Regular exercise is so vital to healthy heart function, in fact, that the research journal Circulation recently published a six-year long study which showed a direct link between improved fitness rates and a reduction in heart disease risk by up to 19%.
And since we are talking about working out and prevention, I might as well sneak this little tidbit in here about disease prevention in general: a recent review by Science Daily looked at over 40 papers published over a five-year period and found that regular exercise can reduce the risk of any number of diseases, including strokes, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Mental health and well-being
A regular workout doesn’t just keep the body fighting fit, it does a whole lot of good for the mind as well. This according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which says that just 30 minutes of exercise three times a week is enough to start feeling the mental health benefits.
The biggest boost your brain gets from a workout comes in the shape of its stress-busting abilities. Not only does exercise release endorphins – the “happy hormone” – throughout the body to improve mood, but it also increases concentrations of norepinephrine, the chemical which regulates the brain’s response to stress. This improves the body’s ability to deal with any existing mental tension you may be feeling, and this mood uplift tends to stay with you long after you’ve hit the showers. Just how long, you ask? Well the University of Vermont reports that the effects of just 20 minutes of exercise can last for up to 12 hours.
But wait, the good news just keeps on coming, and this time in the form of long-term brain health. A study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center recently highlighted that a mere 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week can reduce symptoms of depression in some sufferers by 50% in only 12 weeks. In fact, exercise has been proven to have such an impact on mood and symptoms of depression that Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John J. Ratey stated in his paper “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, that in several studies comparing antidepressants and exercise, the effect on mood was shown to be the same.
What it won’t do
Now that we’ve taken a deeper look at a few of the great things regular workouts do for our bodies, let’s explore what they won’t do. As I touched on upfront, one of the most common misconceptions is to assume that working out alone is enough to counter an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s simply not the case.
Building muscle mass and burning off calories is all well and good, but it can almost be quite useless if you are not eating and living well. This is a fact we would do well to keep in mind here in the UAE, where the top four NCDs – cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease – are claiming far too many lives far too young. We know that poor diet is about 80% of the problem across the board, and working out simply won’t reverse the damage being done by eating all those sugars and grains and processed foods.
And if we are talking about weight loss or weight control in particular – which is the main reason many people go to the gym – what you eat is pretty much everything. To really see how true this is we only need to look at the impact our diets have had over the last 30 years. Obesity rates have skyrocketed, and this is not because we are leading more sedentary lifestyles. In fact, if you do not work out but eat an almost perfect Paleo Diet, you are most likely not going to have issues with weight gain.
British cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra is one of many physicians who backs this train of thought. Writing for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Malhotra claims that the public have “long been pushed an unhelpful message about maintaining a ‘healthy weight’ through calorie counting, and many still wrongly believe that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise”. He concludes that we need to “bust the myth of physical activity and obesity.” In his words: You simply “cannot outrun a bad diet”.
Train mean and eat clean
It was in the 1960s that the obesity epidemic started to find its roots. And it wasn’t because we suddenly became more sedentary. No, our modern obesity epidemic is courtesy of changes in the food industry starting about that time, which effectively saw processed foods and foods high in sugars and chemicals and flavor additives and other naughty things invade our kitchen. And while the UAE ranks as the sixth least active nation in the world, I am here to tell you that we are not going to do much to reduce the country’s obesity levels (currently at 33.7% of the population – with as many as 75% qualifying for being overweight) by hopping on the treadmill.
Now again, I want you to get active. I want you to work out for your organs and your skeletal system and your mental well-being and all those other good reasons. But I don’t want you to think you are countering an unhealthy lifestyle through working out alone. Nutrition is of course the biggie, and you have heard this from me many times before and so I won’t give my usual Paleo spiel. But let’s just be clear that if you had to choose between eating well or working out, it’s eating well every time. Ideally you do both, but if you are not eating well, no matter what else you do, you will most likely be carrying far too much body fat, and your overall health will only be heading in the wrong direction.
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.