Exercise and Health

How does being fit make you healthier?

The blood vessels of a fit person tend to accumulate less plaque than those of an unfit person, leading to a lower risk of heart attack or stroke. Additionally, a person who exercises will improve his or her circulatory system in a general, in part by making the lining of the blood vessels more flexible, so that the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump the blood through the body. The result is that even if there are blockages in the blood vessels, the circulation around those blockages will improve. (There’s still some debate about whether you can actually reduce the amount of plaque that’s already built up in your system, but the question might be moot if you can improve the circulation around it.)

Over time, as you exercise regularly you increase the number of capillaries in your muscles (the small blood vessels that deliver nutrients and remove wastes), as well as the number of mitochondria (living particles inside cells that produce energy) and the enzymes in those mitochondria that allow you to function aerobically.

Exercise stimulates the body to produce endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins are remarkably similar in structure to morphine, and there’s some evidence that people get addicted to running because they are hooked on the endorphin rush. There are less healthy things to be hooked on!

Moderate exercise also seems to boost the immune system, apparently by improving the killer T-cell function. These cells are the army ants of your immune system; they rush in to and kill invaders. (But note that if you exercise until your body is thoroughly fatigued, you can actually impair killer T-cell function. During the 24 to 48 hours following exhaustive exercise –a marathon, for expel-you are most susceptible to upper respiratory system infections, such as colds.)

Finally, exercise reduces stress. It does this by allowing the body to metabolize the stress hormone adrenaline more quickly. Adrenaline is one of nature’s mixed blessings, vital to get you through crises but debilitating if there’s too much of it or if it sticks around too long. Better regulation of the amount of adrenaline in your system is another potential health benefit of exercise.
More Reasons to Get Fit

Regular exercise provides a great incentive for adopting a healthier lifestyle- eating a low-fat diet, getting proper rest, forgoing cigarettes – because doing so makes exercise easier and more pleasant.
Exercise can help you control your weight. Many people seem to put on weight as they age. Some argue it’s because the metabolism slows with age; others say the only reason the metabolism slows down is that people become less active as they get older. (Then again, some people remain slim their entire lives and never seem to do stick of work.) What is known for certain is that most people find that a regular exercise program-combined with healthy eating habits-can help ward off extra pounds. And speaking of exercise and food, there’s a little bonus built into life for people who exercise. Even if weight is not an issue for you, doing more exercise (that is, burning more calories) opens up room in your diet for more of the things you love to eat that would otherwise add inches to your waistline, hips or buttocks.

Fit people have a better self-image, partly because they look and feel better and partly because they have more confidence in their ability to be active. Perhaps this is the basis for the belief that fit people make better lovers!

In any case, getting fit will make you stronger, so you can enjoy participating in a broader range of physical activities. If you’re the kind of person who cringes in fear when one of the kids suggest going to the park and kicking a ball around, getting in shape can improve not only your life but your children’s as well. Active parents encourage a more active lifestyle in their children, not just when the kids are young but in all the years to come.

Note: This article is an excerpt from the revised edition of The Beginning Runner’s Handbook. Greystone Publishing, Vancouver BC, 2005.

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