By Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Ph.D.
Welcome to the second article in our Back to Basics series: a conversation on the story and the science of exercise. Our bodies and brains are integrated systems, and every Friday over the next eight weeks we will illuminate how and why a handful of simple, scientifically grounded lifestyle choices offer protection in the moment and fortify mental and physical health for life.
Exercise is Mother Nature’s “magic pill.” Within 5 to 10 minutes it will begin to:
- Strengthen your immune system
- Perk up your mood
- Reduce inflammation
- Promote clear thought
- Increase your metabolism (burn more calories!)
The biochemistry of exercise protects your body against illness and frees up the warm glow of your inner sunlight, providing a healthy dose of the most powerful of all vitamins — “Vitamin L” (LOVE!) — to yourself and the people in your life. To understand why exercise is an essential ingredient in our recipe for optimal health — particularly as we face COVID-19 — let’s begin with a basic description of how viral infections work.
Viruses are like burglars whose success rate skyrockets when they find unprotected houses to break into. When a human body has high levels of inflammation, a poorly functioning gastrointestinal system and low immunity, it’s akin to leaving the windows wide open and doors unlocked around the clock. Once inside, the burglar eats our food (saps our mitochondrial energy to make copies of itself), wrecks our furniture (disrupts healthy cellular signaling and function), and makes a big giant mess (creates significant inflammation). Then it leaves.
An individual who makes daily lifestyle choices that deactivate the “immunological burglar alarm” is living in a body that is the metabolic equivalent of an unprotected house.
Now for the good news. Mild to moderate exercise is one of the most powerful weapons at our disposal to power up our immune systems to ward off viruses, bacteria, and infection. It does this by reducing inflammation, increasing antibodies that target and destroy viral cells, and by boosting the number of white blood cells, our molecular soldiers on the front line. Physical activity also clears bacteria out of our lungs and airways, slows the release of stress hormones, lowers blood sugar and boosts mitochondrial function — the generator that powers each and every cell in our brain and body. In other words, exercise gives our health protecting troops a good hearty meal, clears away brush and brambles on the battlefield, and gives our most accurate molecular sharpshooters a clear view of the enemy.
As for mental health, exercise reduces stress and literally changes how we perceive, process and make meaning of our world. And remember, it is our perception of events — how we choose to interpret and label them, that drives our neurochemistry — not objective reality. Indeed, well before the era of fMRI scanners and biomarker tests, Shakespeare said it best: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
In modern day terms, neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel’s “name it to tame it” is a powerful life hack. Starting our mornings with exercise helps us put on a new pair of prescription sunglasses, ones that give us clearer vision and better perspective. A view from the summit, and not from the weeds. This is vital given research suggesting that about 40% of our well-being has to do with our outlook on life. Mental and physical health work as an integrated system, with the very same biochemical molecules, in synchrony with our microbiome affecting mind, body and spirit.
In a nutshell here is how it works. Shortly after starting to move our bodies, the brain begins to produce a powerful elixir of happy, mood-elevating biochemicals that make it easier to see the proverbial forest through the trees. In fact, exercise has been found equivalent to medication in keeping depression at bay, and equally or more effective at preventing relapse. Exercise biochemistry includes naturally occurring opioids called endorphins (elevate mood, alertness, strength, and decrease pain), serotonin (combats anxiety and depression) and dopamine (enhances creativity and cognitive flexibility). And if you exercise with someone — walk with a friend (for now, 6 feet apart), or ride bikes with your child — you get to add oxytocin, the love hormone, into the mix.
If you’re having a hard time getting going, listen to your favorite music, podcast, book on tape. Even better, go for a cortisol-lowering walk out in nature, feel the breeze on your face, take in the vibrant colors of the sky, trees, grass and flowers, and absorb some Vitamin D — a known contributor to health and healing. In short, think of exercise as your in-house production facility for some of the most powerful mood-altering drugs we know, ones that human brains LUST FOR and can go to great lengths to access at the local pharmacy.
In modeling healthy and adaptive coping behavior for children, particularly at a time when the outside world seems unsafe, we equip them with important life skills. When children see you making exercise a priority, you are empowering them to access their own oxygen mask whenever they need it. Moreover, because “neurons that fire together, wire together,” they gain the gift of connecting the dots between physical activity, safety, and stability through change. A handy first aid kit for life’s inevitable peaks and valleys.
When we discipline ourselves to create healthy routines, stick with them through thick and thin, and leverage them to overcome obstacles, these “wins” get prime shelf space in our emotional trophy cases. Our self-narratives tell an emboldened story: one of resilience, confidence, and competence — knowing that what impedes us can also empower us. Our evolving story infuses into our ever-evolving epigenome and represents another step forward in us walking our talk by embodying how we want to show up in our world — for ourselves, for our families, for our students, and for our communities.
In 380 B.C., Plato said: “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” These are timeless words. Time is our most precious asset, and the time is now.
Thank you for spending a few moments of your precious time with us today. Please take a moment to slowly breathe in and out. Reflect on what you’ve learned, grab a sheet of paper and write down one or two easy activities you can do starting today. Build it into your Daily Recipe and enjoy the benefits of your own private pharmacy. Bonus: you’ll find that with regular exercise, “insurance” often reimburses at over 100%!