Everyone knows that exercise is good for you, but according to the early release of selected estimates based on data from the 2009 National Health Interview Survey, only 34.7% of U.S. adults aged 18 years and over engaged in regular leisure-time physical activity last year.
The good news is that this percentage is higher than the 2008 estimate of 31.9%. Which means that more people are engaging in either:
- Light-moderate leisure-time physical activity for at least 30 minutes at least 5 times per week
- Vigorous leisure-time physical activity for at least 20 minutes at least 3 times per week
Now, the data doesn’t tell us why more people are being physically active, but that doesn’t stop us from speculating, does it? So, here’s my pet theory: I think that more people are deciding to be physically active in their free time because they want to. Let me explain.
Just about everyone has heard from somewhere that physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of preventable death. Not only that, but it is a risk factor for developing health problems such as anxiety, back pain, cancer, chronic lung disease, coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis. And yet, there are still a whole lot of people living a sedentary lifestyle with no (or irregular) physical activity. There are many different reasons that people give for their sedentary behavior, including the following:
“I don’t have the time to exercise.”
“I can’t get motivated to exercise.”
“It’s inconvenient for me to exercise.”
“I’m sore for days every time I try to exercise.”
“I know I should exercise, but I just don’t want to.”
You might argue that these are actually excuses, but they don’t really excuse being inactive – if you’re physically capable of moving your body, there’s no excuse. These are just the reasons people give for their unhealthy behavior. For instance, take a look at that last one: “I just don’t want to…” How many times have you heard a smoker tell you that when you bring up the subject of quitting? Everybody knows that smoking is bad for you, but people still smoke – because they want to. The key here is that a person will do something, regardless of the consequences or benefits, if they want to. It doesn’t matter if it increases their chances of an earlier death, if a person wants to sit and watch T.V. when they get home from work, they will. Just like if a person wants to go for a run when they get home from work, they will.
We know why the couch potato wants to watch T.V. They’ve worked all day, they’re tired, and they just want to relax now that they don’t have to do anything in particular (this applies to all of those sit down activities, including reading, playing video games, and using the computer). But why does the runner want to run? They’ve worked all day, and they’re tired too. Don’t they want to relax? Sure they do! Maybe that’s exactly what they’re doing by going on a run. Huh? If you’re not a runner, this probably doesn’t make sense to you. I’m not a runner, and my gut instinct would be to go “Huh?” myself if I didn’t have that pesky fitness knowledge squirreled away in my brain telling me that it makes perfect sense for running to be relaxing.
If you’re still with me, here we go… Physical activity has three major positive benefits:
It serves as preventive medicine
We’ve covered this already. Being physically active helps you live longer in a body that actually works instead of breaking down with disease. This is common knowledge, but it doesn’t seem to do much good in terms of motivating people to want to move.
It increases your energy
In order for you to be alive, your body needs energy. Your body gets its energy from the breakdown of nutrients like glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids. Metabolism is a process that breaks down some substances (this is catabolism) and builds up other substances (this is anabolism) for energy. Some energy is used immediately for transmitting nerve impulses and muscle contraction, and some energy is stored for later use. Your metabolic set point is the base rate of metabolism that your body seeks to maintain – this results in your basal metabolic rate, which is the minimum energy required to keep your body alive when at rest. Your metabolic set point can be influenced by several factors. If you go on a low calorie diet, your metabolic set point will become lower in order to conserve energy. If you are physically active, this will tend to keep your metabolic rate up, producing more energy.
It improves your physical, mental, and psychological well-being
There are several different ways in which exercise can affect the brain and make you feel better in body, mind, and psyche. For one, exercise promotes neurogenesis, which is the creation of new neurons (or nerve cells). Neurons are essential components of the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and sense organs – this is the control center of your body. Physical activity can also serve to enhance your mood. You should know that physical activity increases concentrations of serotonin and norepinephrine. If you are depressed, you probably have low levels of these neurotransmitters. Exercise can help you recover from depression.
There is also reciprocal relationship between serotonin and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), where each stimulates production of the other. And let’s add the fact exercise actually promotes BDNF production as well. Do you see that there is a very real probability that being physically active will result in you ending up in a seriously good mood? Also, as the body experiences stress or pain, the pituitary gland releases endorphins – these are brain chemicals that ease or suppress pain and can even promote euphoria, or a feeling of well-being.
When you exercise, an increase in the release of endorphins occurs about half an hour into the activity. You may have heard of a little something called the “runner’s high.” This is a state of euphoria that many runners report having experienced during or after a prolonged period of exercise. Other athletes have similar “high” moments that are brought on by using their body to its maximum potential. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Of course, you do have to endure an initial amount of discomfort before you get the “high.” For some people, this payoff is enough to make them want to engage in long duration endurance exercise. Others are fine with just exercising enough to be put in a better mood.
As more people start to figure out the immediate effect that exercise can have on their mental health and happiness, by gradually increasing their activity level, they will start choosing to live a physically active lifestyle. Long-term benefits are easy for people to dismiss, as they have nothing to do with instant gratification and fulfillment of their wants and needs today. Let’s face it, most of us want what we want and we want it now. It doesn’t mean we always get it, but it doesn’t stop us from wanting. And the one thing that everybody really wants is to be happy.
Imagine when everyone starts to figure this one out!