Popular culture and the fitness industry have distilled physical fitness down to two very superficial motivations: achieving a desired physique aesthetic, and burning calories. For many people, these motivations are enough to get them into the gym, but there are many, many people out there who aren’t motivated by these goals. Perhaps they are happy with their physique, or comfortable with their weight, or simply more concerned with other aspects of living. There is nothing wrong with this at all, and in fact I think being less concerned with one’s appearance than other important aspect of life is probably very healthy (please note that I am not suggesting that being concerned with appearance is therefore unhealthy; these are simply different approaches to living that are both perfectly acceptable).
For people for whom aesthetics and calorie burning aren’t major goals, exercise as it is framed in our culture may seem irrelevant. Today I’d like to talk about the less acknowledged, but probably more important, reasons for staying active.
I discuss Metabolic Health a great deal on my blog. It is a concept that is a little foreign to our reductionist society. Just as we tend to reduce food to a collection of nutrients, we reduce our bodies to a collection of organs and processes, imagining that each works in isolation. Our bodies are more complex than that. The body is actually an intricate system, all the processes of which affect and are effected by all the other processes. The function of this system is what we call metabolism. Popular culture has reduced ‘metabolism’ to ‘the number of calories the body burns’, but metabolism is far more than that. ‘Metabolism’ is actually every single chemical process of every single cell in your body. When one of those processes goes awry, it effects other processes and so begins a cascade of dysfunction.
Exercise is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental processes of metabolism. Exercise effects the body on a cellular level. Exercise helps regulate the ability of our cells to metabolize glucose and produce energy. Improved energy production has far reaching effects on all aspects of our health. This effect on the way our very cells function, our Metabolic Health, is, in my opinion, the reason exercise has been shown to be so powerful an intervention in the treatment and prevention of myriad health conditions.
Exercise has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and mitigate symptoms of Diabetes. Exercise also improves the symptoms of PCOS and even lead to increased fertility. Higher levels of activity are inversely associated with risk factors for Metabolic Syndrome.
Exercise can mitigate the pain and dysfunction of arthritis, both Osteo and Rheumatoid.
Exercise increases bone density.
Exercise also has numerous, less quantifiable quality of life benefits, such as increased confidence, higher libido and improved energy levels.
Ultimately, the kind of exercise one does is far less important than simply being physically active on a regular basis. Although there is a perception that we can only derive benefits from high intensity, vigorous activity, the truth is that simply walking more will produce improvements in health and well being. If walking more leads to other fitness goals, great! If not, walking is enough! As I say to my clients, you do not need to puke, pass out or die in order to get fit. Just moving enough to physically challenge yourself most days of the week is totally adequate to gain health benefits.
Our bodies evolved to move, and when we don’t move enough our bodies don’t function optimally. This has nothing to do with aesthetics or calories or weight. Is has to do with the health of our very cells, and the ways the systems of our body work together to support whole-body health. You try to eat a wide variety of foods to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy, remember that your body needs movement to stay healthy as well. Find an activity you like, so that you will stay engaged, and then enjoy the health benefits it brings!