Move or Die: The Advantages of Being Physically Fit

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Move!

You’re killing yourself. Right now, sitting or standing wherever you are, reading this article. You’re killing yourself. Take a moment to consider these questions:

  • What if you were really hungry and you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from? Would you still be there, looking at the screen?
  • What if you were thirsty and you didn’t have any water, but you knew there was a clean river 5 miles away. Would you be reading an article about the advantages of being physically fit?
  • What if you didn’t have shelter for the night? Would you be reading this article then?

The answer to all of those questions has to be NO. You’d be out doing whatever it took to find food. You’d be digging through the dirt looking for vegetables, or climbing a tree trying to get at its delicious fruit, or hunting an animal to get its protein-rich meat. You’d be well on your way to that life-giving river by now. You would be out searching for a safe place to spend the night, or collecting materials and using them to build yourself a shelter.

If you’re going to continue reading, please keep this in mind while you do: Our ancestors, going back roughly 2.4 million years, lived like that every day. Exercise wasn’t an optional thing they knew they probably should do, but didn’t really want to. Exercise was something they did so that they could live. They didn’t spend their days sitting. They spent their days moving.

Humans aren’t meant to be physically inactive. It’s just not how we’re built. Before the agricultural and industrial revolutions, men and women lived extremely active lifestyles; hunting, gathering, fighting, fleeing, playing, dancing, and loving were necessary parts of the daily lives of humans for as long as they had existed.

But no more.

Our modern enemy

The invention of agriculture, and the advancement of technology has removed the need for us to exercise in order to live. In days gone we had to chase down animals, forage for roots, shoots and nuts, and walk for miles to get water. Now we only have to take a few steps to our fridge, or even worse, get an Uber eats driver to bring our meals directly to us, and we get plenty of clean water from one of the many taps we have in our homes.

And so we now live a largely sedentary lifestyle. Globally, 1 in every 3 people are overweight or obese. In the U.S. and other developed countries, up to 70% of all adults are overweight or obese. Just think about that for a second…70%. Write down the names of any 10 adults you know, and the odds are that as many of 7 of them will be overweight or obese. That’s an incredible number, and it’s largely due to the fact that we don’t move.

Many people sit all day at work, then get home and sit on the couch. Most of our leisure activities, like watching TV and movies, surfing the web, and playing video games involve sitting and ‘relaxing’. We almost always take the path of least resistance, which ironically, is actually an innate drive; our genes command us to “rest when you can”. And with all of life’s necessities so easy to access, we can rest all the time if we want. So that’s what many of us do.

And it’s killing us.

No less than 17 unhealthy conditions are directly linked to an inactive lifestyle. All of them are either chronic diseases, or things that make chronic disease more likely. Just over 1 in every 10 deaths in the U.S. is directly attributable to a lack of physical activity. In 2014, approximately 262,000 people died because they didn’t do what their bodies were made to do. They didn’t move.

Physical inactivity: It’s our modern enemy. And it’s killing us.

Our ancient ally

Early species of humans emerged around 2.4 million years ago, and between that time and us existing in The advantages of being physically fit image of modern hunter gatherersthis moment right now, approximately 84,359 generations have lived. 84,000 of those generations lived as hunter-gatherers; doing vast amounts of physical activity each and every day in order to survive and thrive in their harsh outdoor environments. 350 of those generations lived between the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. And while that time period saw humans having to work less in order to have the things they needed, it was by no means an easy lifestyle. They were early farmers, and farming back then was hard work (to be fair, it still is). A mere 10 generations of humans, including ours right now, have lived a life of abundance. A life where we didn’t have to do demanding physical work every day in order to eat, drink, protect ourselves and sleep safely. Our bodies aren’t used to it, and they cry out for us to do what we were made to do: Move!

Our bodies are still adapted for a life marked by regular physical activity. To both our body and our mind, exercise is not a past-time. As Mark Rippetoe writes in his book, Starting Strength:

Exercise is not a thing we do to fix a problem – it is a thing we must do anyway, a thing without which there will always be problems. Exercise is the thing we must do to replicate the conditions under which our physiology was – and still is – adapted, the conditions under which we are physically normal. In other words, exercise is substitute cave-man activity, the thing we need to make our bodies, and in fact our minds, normal in the 21st century.

Exercise is our ancient ally, and we abandon it at our own peril.

Move or Die!

Our modern enemy wants you dead.

Being physically unfit makes your heart and blood vessels weaker and unable to work properly. Eventually they become diseased and fail. Cardiovascular diseases (diseases of the heart and blood vessels) are the leading cause of death in the United States. A sedentary lifestyle more often than not leads to overweight and obesity, and messes with your metabolism. This then contributes to increasingly common chronic metabolic disorders like type-2 Diabetes, Dyslipidemia, and Gallstones. Breast cancer, bladder cancer, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer and lung cancer are all more likely to strike you down if you don’t exercise. Together these cancers killed 303,024 people in the U.S. in 2013. People with chronic lung diseases such as Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD; which is where your airways become more and more narrow over time, and prevent you from being able to breathe properly) have worse symptoms and a lower quality of life when they are sedentary compared to when they are physically active. Living a physically inactive life also makes it more likely that, as you get older, you’ll develop cognitive dysfunction (decreased ability to perform mental tasks), Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia.

Do you see the pattern here?

Physical inactivity doesn’t care who you are, it just wants you dead and it can kill you in a lot of different ways. Being inactive and unfit increases your chances of dying from any cause. But you can fight back. Physical fitness is written into your genetic code and if you do what’s necessary to become physically fit, your body will have an incredible ability to fight disease.

Move and Live!

If and when you do what your body was made to do, disease and death become less likely. Regular exercise will help to prevent, treat and / or reverse every one of the chronic diseases mentioned above:

Cardiovascular diseases

One of the most significant benefits of being physically active is that your heart and blood vessels become much stronger, and better able to do their job of transporting blood around your body. A strong heart and healthy blood vessels are much less likely to become diseased .

Just as lifting weights causes your skeletal muscles to grow bigger, exercise that makes your heart work hard causes it to grow larger and stronger. Also, when you make your heart work hard by exercising on a regular basis, it becomes more efficient, and requires less oxygen to do what it does. Incredibly, regular exercise actually causes your body to produce more blood, meaning there is more of it in total, and more of it being pumped in a single heart beat.

Once upon a time, it was believed that your blood vessels were just passive tubes for transporting blood, and that they didn’t change as a result of regular exercise. This is now known to be untrue. Regular physical activity causes significant changes in the structure and functioning of your blood vessels, especially the arteries, which makes them resistant to hardening (a disorder called ‘Ateriosclerosis’) and to becoming clogged (a disorder called ‘Atherogenesis’).

All of these adaptations to exercise mean that when you’re resting, and when you’re doing light- to moderately-intense physical activity, your heart and blood vessels are under less stress. And being less stressed means they remain healthy for longer.

But even for individuals already suffering from a cardiovascular disease, exercise is extremely beneficial. For example, when people who have coronary heart disease (where the heart doesn’t get enough oxygen, and is at increased risk of a heart attack) begin a program of regular exercise, their hearts become stronger and they’re less likely to die from their disease.

Metabolic disorders

Another very important benefit of working out is that it helps to regulate your weight. People who exercise regularly are significantly less likely to be overweight or obese, and when people who are overweight or obese begin and stick to a program of regular physical activity, they consistently lose weight.

Being overweight or obese puts you at much greater risk of developing a range of chronic diseases. Some of the most serious are those that affect your body’s metabolism, such as type-2 Diabetes. Type-2 Diabetes sufferers generally have high blood sugar, they’re pancreases don’t secrete enough insulin (insulin is a hormone that helps to regulate your blood sugar level), and their bodies don’t metabolize fat, glucose and protein properly. Most people with type-2 Diabetes (up to 90%) are obese. It should come as no surprise then that physical activity that leads to weight loss can both prevent and even reverse this debilitating chronic disease. A Swedish study involving obese individuals, found that those who participated in a program of regular exercise that helped them lose weight were significantly less likely to develop type-2 Diabetes two years later. But that’s not all. Amazingly, among the obese individuals who already had Diabetes, 60% of those who lost even a small amount of weight went into remission (had reduced signs or symptoms of diabetes), while 97% of individuals who lost a large amount of weight went into remission.

Other metabolic disorders, such as Dyslipidemia (which is where there is too much of certain kinds of fat in the bloodstream) and Gallstones (a very painful disorder in which small crystals form in the gallbladder) can also be prevented, treated, and reversed through regular exercise.

Cancers

Protection against numerous forms of cancer is probably #1 on the list of benefits of physical activity. More and more evidence from scientific research is emerging that shows that people who engage in regular exercise and have high levels of physical fitness are less likely than people who don’t exercise regularly to develop common cancers, such as lung cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and bladder cancer . Reducing the risk of developing cancer in the first place, however, isn’t where the relationship between cancer and exercise ends.

For people who have been diagnosed with cancer, the benefits of being physically fit are immense. Remarkably, studies have shown that people who maintain a high level of physical activity both during and after their cancer treatment have higher rates of survival. In fact, remaining physically active while living with cancer can do as much as double your chance of surviving cancer. Also, cancer sufferers who maintain a program of regular physical activity tend to experience better overall quality of life, emotional well-being, and social functioning, as well as lower levels of fatigue, depression and anxiety, and less psychological burden from having to do chemotherapy.

Lung diseases

People with chronic lung diseases such as Asthma and COPD have difficulty breathing properly, especially when they have to exert themselves. This reduces the amount of oxygen being provided to their body and is a very serious problem that can lead to suffocation. The experience of breathlessness felt by Asthmatics and COPD sufferers can be extremely scary, and it often leads them to avoid taking part in physical activity. It’s a sad irony then that they’re the people that find it the hardest to get regular exercise, but whom experience some of its greatest benefits.

Regular physical activity produces changes in the lungs and associated muscles, as well as other body systems such as the cardiovascular and skeletal systems, which simultaneously improves the body’s ability to take in oxygen and reduces its need for it. It’s generally through the latter that people with chronic lung disorders benefit from being physically fit.

Regular exercise doesn’t improve the overall functioning of the lungs in people with diseases like Asthma and COPD, but it does improve cardiorespiratory fitness§. This improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness then reduces the need for oxygen, and the amount of stress placed on the lungs and airways during everyday living. Also, one of the many well-known health benefits of being physically active is that it causes a reduction in inflammation. Together, these effects combine to minimize episodes of breathlessness and improve overall quality of life for those who suffer from chronic lung diseases.

Cognitive diseases

The old saying “healthy body, healthy mind” is one of the truest you’ll hear. The mind and body are inextricably linked, and your mind simply can’t function to its highest potential when your body isn’t doing what it’s made to do.

It’s not clear exactly how exercise influences the way the brain works, but its thought that it happens through changes in blood flow and metabolism. Regular physical activity seems to cause new blood vessels to form around brain cells, which increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients. Exercising also seems to increase the production and use of certain substances in the brain known as growth factors, which stimulate the growth of new brain cells. It’s believed that these mechanisms are responsible for physical activity’s role in the prevention and treatment of certain cognitive disorders.

As we grow older, it seems natural that our cognitive abilities, such as attention, memory and concentration get worse. While this may be true, maintaining high levels of physical activity and staying physically fit as we get older can protect us against this cognitive decline. Research has consistently shown that doing even low levels of physical activity throughout middle and older age helps to preserve our mental functions. Regular exercise can also help to prevent more serious and debilitating cognitive disorders such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A study recently found that people who are physically active are less likely to develop Dementia and Alzheimer’s than those who aren’t physically active. Prevention of these cognitive diseases is not the only benefit exercise can have.

There is also evidence that people who already have Dementia and Alzheimer’s can regain some of their cognitive functioning by exercising regularly.

Do you see the pattern here?

Being physically inactive will kill you, one way or another. Our bodies are simply not meant to sit still; they’re meant to move. Does this mean that if you exercise regularly you’ll always be healthy and will never develop a chronic illness? No. Other factors can influence whether or not you develop a chronic disease, including but not limited to:

  • Diet
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Exposure to harmful substances
  • Your genetic makeup

Even if you exercise every day, you can never be certain that you won’t fall ill. But if you don’t exercise – if you don’t do what your body was made to do – you can be certain that you’ll die sooner than you have to.

Preventing, treating and reversing serious diseases is a major advantage of being physically fit, but it’s not the only one.

The Advantages of Being Physically Fit

Even for healthy people who would not otherwise develop a chronic disease, the advantages of being physically fit are plentiful. They can be separated into two broad categories:

  1. Physical advantages
  2. Psychological advantages

Physical advantages of being physically fit

When you exercise regularly almost all parts of your body undergo serious changes.

The walls of your heart and blood vessels become stronger, and require less oxygen to do the same amount of work. Your heart beat itself becomes stronger. The amount of blood produced by your body increases. Together these changes mean that your heart can pump more blood, more efficiently, and therefore provide more oxygen and nutrients to the different parts of your body.

At your lungs, the respiratory muscles (those that allow you to breathe in and out) become stronger and can work for longer, meaning your lungs are able to take in more air. There is an increase in the amount of blood that flows to the lungs, both at rest and during exercise. Inside the lungs, oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide leaves the blood more efficiently. All of this means that there is more oxygen in your blood at any point in time, and your lungs have to do less work to make this happen.

Anyone who does it knows that one of the major benefits of working out is that your skeletal muscles grow larger and stronger. They can contract more forcefully, allowing you to move with greater strength and power. They’re also able to work for longer before becoming tired.

Not only do your muscles become stronger but your bones become thicker and stronger, as does your cartilage and other connective tissue like tendons and ligaments. It should be pointed out, however, that over-training (i.e., consistently exercising for too long, or at too high intensity) can cause lasting damage to bone, cartilage and connective tissue.

The skin experiences changes when you exercise regularly as well. One of the skin’s primary functions is to hep regulate body heat through sweating, and physical activity improves your skin’s ability to do this. Therefore, physically fit individuals are more tolerant to heat both when resting and when physically active.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, regular exercise improves your body’s ability to burn fat. When exercising, people who are already physically fit actually burn more fat than unfit people – up to 25% more. This decreases the amount of fat you currently have, and helps you maintain lower levels of body fat over the long-term. Obviously, this then reduces the likelihood of being overweight or obese, and prevents the huge number of associated problems.

Together, all of these physical adaptations to regular exercise make everyday living easier. When your body is strong and healthy it’s easier to navigate through life. Routine activities such as housework and gardening are less of a burden. Moderately difficult things like climbing stairs and running for the bus can be done without losing your breath. You have more energy to play with your kids; to play the sports you enjoy; to do difficult things you might have avoided before. Life is generally easier and more pleasant to live.

That’s the physical advantages of doing regular exercise. What about the psychological advantages?

Psychological advantages of being physically fit

In addition to your physical health, your mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise.

Regular physical activity will help to boost your mood in both the short- and long-term. It has been shown that people who exercise regularly and are physically fit feel more happiness, enjoyment and fun during their daily lives, and are less prone to depression than people who don’t exercise. Working out regularly will also help you have better reactions to situations that you find stressful and / or anxiety-provoking, such as public speaking or solving difficult problems.

There is evidence that exercise helps you think more clearly and perform mental tasks such as paying attention, planning and coordinating, and decision-making. Also, some studies have found that regular exercise can help boost your memory, learning, and academic performance.

Exercise will help you sleep better, feel better about yourself and have more energy and vigour as you go about your life.

All-in-all, physical activity brings about a greater sense of mental and emotional well-being, and improves your health-related quality of life.

In this article we’ve talked about ‘physical activity’, ‘regular exercise’, ‘physical fitness’, ‘doing what your body was made to do’, etc. And you may be wondering what exactly is meant by these terms. What do you actually have to do to gain the advantages of being ‘physically fit’?

Quantity and Quality of Exercise

In our next post, we’ll give you a complete run down of what kind of physical activity our bodies evolved to do (i.e., what physical activity our hunter-gatherer ancestors did day-to-day), and how you can replicate it.

We’ll provide the brief version here. This information comes from the American College of Sports Medicine’s Position Stand on The Recommended Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory and Muscular Fitness, and Flexibility in Healthy Adults. There are three broad types of exercise you should be getting each week:

Recommended Physical Activity

①  Aerobic Exercise
What is it?Any activity that involves large muscles groups, is rhythmic in nature, and can be done continuously
Examples?Jogging, cycling, skipping, swimming, rowing, dancing
How much?
How often?
30 – 60 mins per day
3 – 5 days per week
At what intensity?55 – 90% of your maximum heart rate
Maximum heart rate = 220 minus your age
②  Resistance Training
What is it?Any activity that provides resistance against muscular contraction and is intended to build the strength, power and / or size of the muscles
Examples?Training with dumbbells or a barbell, home gyms and suspension trainers, bodyweight exercises such as push ups, pull ups, and sit ups
How much?
How often?
8-10 exercises that condition each major muscle group
2 – 3 days per week
At what intensity?8 – 12 repetitions per exercise
③  Flexibility Training
What is it?Any exercises that stretch the major muscles and increase and maintain range of motion
Examples?Static stretching on the floor or with a stretching machine, dynamic stretching, pilates, yoga
How much?
How often?
At least 10 minutes of static and dynamic stretching per day
Minimum of 2 – 3 days per week (dynamic stretching should be done prior to any strenuous physical activity)
At what intensity?As appropriate

Summary

That was a long article, we know. But there’s just so much to say about why it’s important to be physically active and the advantages of being physically fit. If you’ve read all the way to this point, well done! Let’s do a quick recap:

  • Our bodies are not meant to be physically inactive. For millions of years humans have needed to be highly active in order to survive and thrive. Only in the last 10 or so generations have we been able to live sedentary lifestyles.
  • Physical inactivity is our modern enemy and it’s directly linked to a huge number of serious and deadly chronic diseases, such as heart disease, certain types of cancer, type-2 diabetes, and obesity.
  • Regular physical activity not only helps to prevent many of these chronic diseases, but can also be critical in treating and even reversing them.
  • Even in healthy people, regular exercise has some serious advantages. Overall, your physical, mental and emotional health and well-being are better when you get regular physical activity.
  • Your body was made to do 3 broad types of physical activity: 1) Aerobic exercise; 2) Resistance training; and 3) Flexibility training.

So, now you have to ask yourself: Am I doing the things my body was made to do? Am I experiencing the many advantages of being physically fit? If your answers are No, then it’s time to get cracking. It’s never too late to get fit and healthy. Just remember: Move or Die!

Thanks for reading the article! If you found it valuable, please share with your friends and family on social media. Also, leave any thoughts or comments in the comments section below.

As always, best of luck with your home workouts. Remember: when it comes to our health and fitness, we can make the effort or we can make excuses, but we can’t make both.

THFF (The Home Fit Freak)

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