I just read a great blog by Inspire Fitness Now that can be accessed at: inspirefitnessnow.wordpress.com. The subject was “sweat a little to feel a little.” I wholeheartedly recommend subscribing to her blog. Reading her wise words inspired me to expand a bit on the subject of exercise and how meaningful it is me and to our health in general. Like healthy eating, exercise is one of the cornerstones of wellness.
Exercise dependency, in which exercise becomes your “drug,” is one of the few healthy dependencies you can have (although it certainly is possible to carry it to an extreme). The euphoric state achieved by jogging, for example, is often referred to as “runner’s high”; I personally find that it takes me at least three miles of running to achieve it. When you can achieve this Zen-like state, monotony actually can become pleasurable and repetition can become a source of comfort! This “entranced” state is ideal for letting the mind ruminate and meditate; I keep a notebook and pen close at hand and often have to stop for a moment and scribble down an interesting thought or idea.
This phenomenon of achieving a Zen-like state is not exclusive to running as any prolonged aerobic endeavor can result in this calm, lucid, mood-elated feeling. The “runner’s high” certainly does not occur every time I engage in an aerobic exercise, but I always do end up feeling better after then before I began exercising. An added bonus is that one always looks better, too—there’s nothing quite like the “afterglow” of a vigorous, sweat-inducing workout.
Exercising is useful for exorcising your demons away, whatever they may be. I find myself using the salutary, short-term effects of exercise to combat fatigue and stress. That’s right: expend energy to gain energy! It sounds counter-intuitive but is not at all! As a physician, I am subject to quite a bit of stress, and exercise serves as a fine tonic to help deal with these issues. Working out is absolutely transformational under many circumstances including to cure the ills associated with traveling and to serve as an antidote to jet lag.
I find that when I attend a medical conference that requires sitting and listening to lectures for more than a few hours, I am left deeply fatigued and feeling unwell because I am an energetic individual who relishes activities. My only solution for assuming a state of normalcy is very aggressive, sweat-drenching cardiovascular exercise, functioning to transform me back to my typical energetic self. The same holds true for putting in a long day in at the office—after ten hours or so of seeing patients, I often find myself exhausted AND very stressed. As soon as I get home, I change into workout clothes and head downstairs to my basement. After a good aerobic workout coupled with some strength training, followed by a nice, hot shower, I emerge—physically and emotionally invigorated, my stress released, and fatigue having gone by the wayside—to join my family for dinner with a cathartic fresh outlook and a heady sense of well-being.
I contend that we, as humans, have an amazing pharmacy within our own bodies, one that is capable of naturally manufacturing a significant portion of all the pharmaceuticals that we will ever need. Exercise is able to tap and manipulate our pharmacy within to release a symphony of chemicals that can help make us feel happy, alert, and alive. Simultaneous with our body sweating out “poisons” (sodium, chloride, potassium, uric acid, urea, ammonia, and lactic acid), our brains and glands are producing a whole cocktail of drugs, including hormones, neurotransmitters, etc. These may include endorphins (morphine-like chemicals with pain-relieving properties), serotonin (which may be responsible for causing heightened emotions and senses), corticosteroids (naturally-occurring anti-inflammatory hormones), and phenylethylamine (also found in chocolate and somewhat similar to amphetamines in terms of its ability to improve mood and ability to focus and purportedly released in the brain when people fall in love). At the same time, exercise causes levels of adrenaline (our stress hormone) to decrease.
While the specifics and reactions of the chemicals involved remain largely elusive, vigorous aerobic exercise can and does for many people cause a “rush”–like sensation, heightened awareness, and a feeling akin to the infatuation state of a loving relationship! Internal chemical release may also be responsible for the improvement of joint pain in those suffering with arthritis, decrease in hot flashes in women going through menopause, and improvement in the symptoms of many chronic conditions and diseases.
When I found out that my father had prostate cancer, I was flabbergasted. Similarly, when I received the call from the laboratory that my wife was a carrier of the BRCA-1 gene that is associated with a markedly increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, I was in a state of shock, anxiety, and confusion. On both occasions, my immediate means of attempting to cope with these horrible medical reports was to put on my running shoes and go for a long, slow jog. I was literally drawn to run, almost by an external force—not music-inspired, happy running, but angst-inspired physical exertion, allowing me time to ruminate, mull, and contemplate—somehow, this meditative, physical exercise helped me deal with the psychological issues at hand. I found consolation by finding my running shoes—fitness and exercise being my “religion” on many levels.
So what I am saying is that exercise actually IS the drug Norvasc (lowers blood pressure), and Lipitor (lowers cholesterol), and Aspirin (helps prevent untoward cardiovascular events), and Lexipro (helps manage anxiety and depression) and Viagra (helps manage erectile dysfunction) and then some! It is exercise that is my performance- enhancing drug! If the benefits of exercise could be incorporated into a pill, it would be a blockbuster for any pharmaceutical company!
In summary, the short-term positive effects of exercise are the psychological and physical benefits of stress busting, improvement of mood, fatigue reduction, and increase of energy. What about the long-term benefits? These include reduction in risk for diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, hypertension, some cancers, osteoporosis, chronic medical problems, falls, and physical disability. An exercise regimen is also useful for increasing muscular strength and tone, reducing body fat, and helping with weight control. Exercise and its resultant weight reduction will help lower blood pressure, total cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol (LDL), and raise “good” cholesterol (HDL). Biological aging is thought to be partly on the basis of oxidative stress, which is reduced by exercise, so exercise can keep us looking and acting youthful.
“Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”
Edward Stanley, The Conduct of Life
If you would like to watch my ten-minute video on exercise, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEWOPdNYXt4
Andrew Siegel, M.D.