The Ex­er­cise Fix

Real Simple - - Relating - By Jes­sica Mi­gala



EX­ER­CISE IS MEDICINE. If you moved your body to­day, you de­liv­ered a pow­er­ful dose of pain-re­liev­ing, sleep-in­duc­ing, blood-sugar-reg­u­lat­ing nat­u­ral drugs to your mus­cles, heart, and brain. Of course, there’s no sub­sti­tute for phar­ma­col­ogy in some sit­u­a­tions, but ex­er­cise can be a mir­a­cle cure. Here’s to break­ing a sweat—and reap­ing the ben­e­fits.

Sleep Bet­ter

One rea­son to get off the couch to­day: a bet­ter snooze tonight. “Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity im­proves your abil­ity to reg­u­late your mood and low­ers anx­i­ety lev­els, which can cause in­som­nia,” says Michael T. Smith Jr., PhD, a sleep ex­pert at Johns Hop­kins Medicine in Bal­ti­more. “Some stud­ies of brain ac­tiv­ity show that ex­er­cise may cre­ate a phys­i­o­log­i­cal need for deeper sleep.” In short, you wake up re­freshed— not groggy. Ex­er­cise can also make a dif­fer­ence dur­ing the day, help­ing you hit your to-do list in­stead of want­ing to nap at your desk. Re­search re­veals that peo­ple who meet phys­i­calac­tiv­ity guide­lines (150 min­utes a week of mod­er­ate-in­ten­sity ex­er­cise) are 35 per­cent less likely to feel sleepy dur­ing the day.


Get out of breath—think row­ing or vig­or­ous bik­ing. If evening ex­er­cise works for you, em­brace it. It will spike your core body tem­per­a­ture, and the sub­se­quent cooldown can pro­mote deeper sleep, says Smith. Aim to fin­ish ex­er­cis­ing two hours be­fore bed.

Man­age Choles­terol

The think­ing used to be that you should lower your to­tal choles­terol, but doc­tors now look at the two types, HDL and LDL, in dif­fer­ent ways. When it comes to HDL, the higher the bet­ter; for LDL, the lower the bet­ter, ex­plains Suzanne Stein­baum, DO, di­rec­tor of women’s car­dio­vas­cu­lar preven­tion, health, and well­ness at Mount Si­nai Heart in NEWYORK City. As you age, your es­tro­gen lev­els de­cline, and so does your HDL choles­terol, leav­ing your heart vul­ner­a­ble to dam­age. To get your num­bers in check, start mov­ing. “Re­search shows that the most po­tent thing you can do is ex­er­cise, be­cause it im­proves the func­tion of HDL. We don’t have a drug that does that and helps pro­vide bet­ter out­comes for heart dis­ease and stroke,” says Stein­baum. “Ex­er­cise is bet­ter than med­i­ca­tion.” And it pays off: For ev­ery 1 per­cent your HDL in­creases by, your heart dis­ease risk de­creases by 3 per­cent, notes Stein­baum.


A reg­i­men in­volv­ing both cardio and strength train­ing is ideal for in­creas­ing HDL and re­duc­ing LDL in peo­ple who are healthy or have high choles­terol, ac­cord­ing to a re­view in the jour­nal Sports Medicine. Try to get a min­i­mum of 30 min­utes of mod­er­ate ex­er­cise five days aweek; at least two of those ses­sions should in­clude strength train­ing.

Al­le­vi­ate PMS

Cramps, mood­i­ness, and ex­haus­tion: The last thing you want to do is hit the gym, thanks. But dress in comfy clothes and go—you’ll feel bet­ter.

“It’s a well-known phe­nom­e­non that ex­er­cise re­leases feel-good chem­i­cals in the brain called en­dor­phins,” says

Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gy­ne­col­o­gist and as­sis­tant clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of ob-gyn at the Ic­ahn School of Medicine at Mount Si­nai in New York

City. En­dor­phins are re­spon­si­ble for the fa­mous “run­ner’s high,” and they’re a source of nat­u­ral pain re­liev­ers that tar­get cramps. An­other perk: Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity may lessen your flow. To pre­vent and treat dis­com­fort, Dweck rec­om­mends ex­er­cis­ing reg­u­larly and ramp­ing it up a cou­ple of days be­fore you ex­pect your pe­riod to ar­rive. Use a pe­riod-track­ing app and set an alert to ping you to make a date with the gym. This will feel eas­ier each month.

“Our bod­ies are made to move. Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity helps lubri­cate the disks in the spine

and im­proves nerve, mus­cle, and joint func­tions that play a role in back health.”


Cardio work­outs are very ef­fec­tive at flood­ing the body with en­dor­phins, though many other kinds of ex­er­cise also re­lease them, says Dweck. If you want gen­tler move­ment, roll out your yoga mat. Fif­teen stud­ies con­cluded that yoga may help re­duce PMS, ac­cord­ing to a re­view in the Jour­nal of Al­ter­na­tive and Com­ple­men­tary Medicine. The mind-body prac­tice can calm your ner­vous sys­tem’s stress re­sponse— that’s help­ful, since stress is known to worsen cramps. Yoga may also im­prove pain tol­er­ance and leave you with a greater sense of well­be­ing, some­thing you could use right now.

Re­lieve Back Pain

You can’t fig­ure out what hap­pened (are you sleep­ing funny? Is it all that sit­ting or stand­ing at work?), but your back is sore and stiff, and it’s not get­ting bet­ter. All you want to do is lie down and flip on Net­flix. Up to 80 per­cent of adults will ex­pe­ri­ence lower-back pain at some point in their lives, and it’s one of the most com­mon rea­sons peo­ple head to the doc­tor and stay home from work. How­ever, while only a qual­i­fied health care prac­ti­tioner can tell you the best course of ac­tion for treat­ing your pain, “some­times the so­lu­tion is not to rest,” says Nick Li­cameli, a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist at Pro­fes­sional Phys­i­cal Ther­apy in Nut­ley, New Jer­sey. Pain med­i­ca­tions, like opi­oids, aren’t nec­es­sar­ily the so­lu­tion ei­ther. “Our bod­ies are made to move. Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity helps lubri­cate the disks in the spine and im­proves nerve, mus­cle, and joint func­tions that play a role in back health,” says Li­cameli. In many cases, you can’t couch-potato your way out of pain—do­ing so may pro­long it.


To ease the aches, you need an all-around rou­tine. A U.K. re­search re­view an­a­lyz­ing the best type of ex­er­cise to treat back pain con­cluded that a three-pronged ap­proach gets pa­tients feel­ing bet­ter fastest. Cardio boosts heal­ing blood flow to the soft tis­sues in the back and re­leases en­dor­phins. Strength work that chal­lenges the core builds mus­cles

that sup­port the spine, re­liev­ing dis­com­fort by as much as 77 per­cent. Flex­i­bil­ity train­ing fo­cus­ing on the spine and ham­strings im­proves range of mo­tion to tem­per pain by up to 58 per­cent. To per­fect the rou­tine, see a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist, who can guide you to­ward the ex­er­cises you need.

Lift De­pres­sion

If you are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing de­pres­sion but hes­i­tant to go on med­i­ca­tion (or if suss­ing out the right meds is a tough process), con­sider a nat­u­ral moodlift­ing power duo: ther­apy and ex­er­cise. A plethora of stud­ies have ex­am­ined the role ex­er­cise can play in treat­ment. Some have shown mixed re­sults. How­ever, a large, well-re­spected anal­y­sis look­ing at 39 stud­ies, which was pub­lished in 2013 in the Cochrane Database of Sys­tem­atic Re­views, found that while ac­tiv­ity alone isn’t bet­ter than an­tide­pres­sants, for some peo­ple it’s as ef­fec­tive as psy­chother­apy, and it’s cer­tainly bet­ter than no ther­apy, says John Sharp, MD, a psy­chi­a­trist at Beth Is­rael Dea­coness Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Bos­ton and the au­thor of The In­sight Cure. Ex­er­cise boosts en­dor­phins, re­lieves stress, and im­proves men­tal health in ways we still don’t un­der­stand, he says. An­other bright spot: Re­search shows that reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity also helps pre­vent de­pres­sion. The over­all take­away is pos­i­tive. “I ad­vise that ev­ery­one try­ing to re­cover from de­pres­sion at­tend ther­apy and ex­er­cise,” says Sharp. And that’s all many peo­ple will need. Of course, if you suf­fer from se­vere de­pres­sion or have a strong fam­ily his­tory of it, then adding an an­tide­pres­sant may cre­ate the mood-lift­ing tri­fecta you need. De­pres­sion is a se­ri­ous ill­ness. If you have symp­toms—fa­tigue, feel­ings of hope­less­ness or worth­less­ness, loss of plea­sure in ac­tiv­i­ties—ask your doc­tor for a re­fer­ral to a men­tal health pro­fes­sional.


One of the hall­mark symp­toms of de­pres­sion is a lack of en­joy­ment in ac­tiv­i­ties, so it can be tough to get up and get go­ing. But one study com­pared the ef­fects of do­ing ei­ther light, mod­er­ate, or vig­or­ous ac­tiv­ity for about an hour three times aweek, and re­sults showed that even light ex­er­cise (walk­ing, stretch­ing) im­proved men­tal health. “You don’t need to kill it in the gym to get the ben­e­fit of ex­er­cise in treat­ing and pre­vent­ing de­pres­sion,” says Sharp. Ex­er­cis­ing ev­ery other day is a good goal. Don’t wait un­til you feel ready and en­er­gized. You may have to push your­self to start, but you’ll be mak­ing a big step to­ward re­cov­ery.

Pre­vent Di­a­betes

Ninety per­cent of the 84 mil­lion adults in the U.S. with pre­di­a­betes (a con­di­tion in which blood sugar lev­els are el­e­vated) don’t know they have it. Left un­treated, pre­di­a­betes can de­velop into full-blown type 2. If you’ve got pre­di­a­betes risk fac­tors—you have a fam­ily his­tory of type 2 di­a­betes, you’re 45 or older, you’re over­weight, you’re seden­tary— start­ing an ex­er­cise pro­gram can bring you back from the brink of a type 2 di­ag­no­sis. Dur­ing ex­er­cise, mus­cles soak up glu­cose for en­ergy, which low­ers blood sugar. “High­qual­ity re­search from the Di­a­betes Preven­tion Pro­gram shows that, in gen­eral, ex­er­cise helps pre­vent the dis­ease—es­pe­cially for those who are over­weight and lose even a mod­est amount,” says Matthew J. O’Brien, MD, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of medicine and pre­ven­tive medicine at the Fein­berg School of Medicine at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity.


You don’t have to join a gym to re­duce your di­a­betes risk. A study in the jour­nal Di­a­betolo­gia found that peo­ple who did the equiv­a­lent of

11½ miles of brisk walk­ing weekly (less than two miles a day) im­proved their glu­cose tol­er­ance by 7 per­cent. That re­sult is bet­ter than the one ex­pe­ri­enced by peo­ple who did an equal amount of vig­or­ous ac­tiv­ity (think jog­ging) and al­most as good as the one ex­pe­ri­enced by peo­ple who lost weight through diet and ex­er­cise. One fi­nal note: “Stay­ing con­sis­tent is the most im­por­tant part,” says O’Brien. Ex­er­cise af­fects glu­cose con­trol quickly—any ef­fort you put in to­day mat­ters. Just stick with it.

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