Why is Exercise so Important?

September 18, 2012 in Categories: , by

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Let’s get one thing straight:  exercise is not about “burning calories”.  The amount of calories you actually burn exercising compared to sitting and doing nothing is not really that much.  It certainly adds up very slowly when you consider that 3500 calories is equivalent to one pound of stored energy.  If you want to lose weight, focus on your diet (see my post Tips and Tricks For Losing Weight).  But, while diet changes will make the largest contribution to weight loss, it’s important not to ignore exercise!  However, think of exercise as your hormone management, not your calorie burning.

 Hormones are chemical messengers in contact with virtually every cell in your body, sensitive to the demands of your cells, sensing changes in your body’s chemistry, and responding rapidly to ensure that the cells in your body get everything they need to stay healthy.  Exercise has a profound effect on every hormone system in your body.  Whether that exercise is aerobic or anaerobic, cardio intensive or strength training, low-intensity or high-intensity, and short duration or long duration, changes how that exercise affects each hormone system.  It also matters what time of day you exercise, whether or not you exercise in a fasted state, and what other stressors are present (mental stress, lack of sleep, poor quality diet, etc.).  However, what is uniformly true is that exercise is beneficial to hormone regulation. 

 Some of the benefits of exercise are obvious.  Increasing muscle mass causes an increase in metabolism, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight.  Most people like the way they look better when they have bigger and more defined muscles (I do!).   And it’s just plain handy to be stronger, faster, more flexible and more agile.  But there are some additional benefits that you might not immediately think of as you contemplate adding more or different types of activity to your life.  The field of exercise endocrinology (how exercise affects hormones) is enormous and I will be tackling many key areas in upcoming posts.  In particular, I will touch on each of the following benefits to exercise:

 Appetite and Weight Control:  Exercise is known to regulate key hunger hormones such as leptin and ghrelin (I have a whole post on hunger hormones coming soon!) and may even promote healthier digestion through hormone regulation.  It is not necessarily true that exercise makes you hungrier, although it may feel that way.  In fact, for many people (and depending on the type of exercise), exercise makes it easier to naturally consume fewer calories in an entire day (even if you eat a bigger meal right after working out).  Not only does exercise regulate your appetite, but many people find that they naturally crave more nutrient-dense foods.  I myself crave fish and vegetables after an intense workout and while I feel famished, I actually fill up much more quickly than on days that I don’t exercise as much or as intensely.  Exercise is also believed to help lower your bodyweight “set-point” (a controversial idea that basically says that there is a weight which your body “wants” to be, which is determined by your hormones, which are in turn influenced by diet and lifestyle).

 Metabolism and Insulin Sensitivity:  Exercise helps to improve insulin sensitivity through a direct action on the glucose transport molecules in the individual cells of your muscles.  It also affects the full range of hormones related to accessing stored energy and regulating how that energy is used.  This “boost” in metabolism is one reason why exercising can make you feel more energetic throughout the day.

 Body Composition and Bone Health:  When you exercise, your muscles get stronger (and sometimes bigger, depending on the exercise).  This is one contributor to increased metabolism.  And very importantly for long-term health, exercise (especially weight-bearing exercise) stimulates your body to make stronger and denser bones.  Exercise or lack thereof is, in fact, a bigger determinant of osteoporosis risk than diet.

 Stress Management:  Exercise is very effective at modulating cortisol levels.  This is a bit of a double-edged sword because exercising too intensely for your body can increase your cortisol level too high and lead to adrenal fatigue.  However, if you keep exercise to a more appropriate duration and intensity for your fitness level (and appropriate for how well you eat, sleep and manage stress in other areas of your life), exercise becomes very potent at reducing and normalizing cortisol levels (which can also help reduce inflammation and promote healing).  This makes it easier to burn stored energy (especially fat), improves your sleep, and makes you feel more relaxed and able to cope with life’s surprises.

 Sleep Quality:  Beyond its effect on cortisol, exercise regulates several key hormones related to circadian rhythms.  This means that when you exercise during the day, you fall asleep easier, sleep more soundly, and experience more restorative sleep so you wake up feeling more refreshed (providing you allot adequate time for sleeping).  Sleeping better positively affects just about everything in your body, from your cortisol levels to your body’s ability to heal and resolve inflammation.  This is another double-edged sword because exercising too intensely too late in the day can make it more difficult to fall asleep.

 Mood:  Beyond its effect on the stress hormone cortisol, exercise releases endorphins which has a direct reflect on several key neurotransmitters that are related to mood.  This means that making time to exercise can help fight depression and anxiety and improve your general outlook on life.  Exercising also increases blood flow to the brain which can help reduce inflammation in the brain (which also has the net effect of boosting your mood), which is an important strategy for those with gut-brain axis problems.

 What exercise is best?  There are different benefits of exercise, depending on type, duration and intensity, but with the exception of over-training (exercising more too intensely or for too long of a duration for your body and current fitness level), all exercise is extremely beneficial.  What exercise is best for you depends on your goals and your current health status.  As I delve into the specific effects of different types of exercise on different hormone systems in upcoming posts, hopefully you will find enough information to guide your decision making when it comes to prioritizing one activity over another.  But, what matters most is that you do something—even just a gentle stroll.  And even better, do something you enjoy (for me, that’s yoga!).  If you enjoy your activity, you are far more likely to keep doing it.


Wonderful motivation for me to get up and work out today. Unfortunately it is pouring out and my bar and bumper plates are outside 🙁

I would love to know more about how the time of day you exercise is important, and the benefits of exercising in a fasted state. I almost always work out first thing in the morning, before eating anything, and often don’t feel hungry for at least an hour afterwards. I do it this way because it’s literally the ONLY thing that works for my schedule, but I’d be curious if there were added benefits!

It’s usually better to workout in the AM fasted that way you will be burning through carbs from the night before. I tell clients to play around with it. Some workouts require fuel while others you will be more driven and focused without. On a fasted in the AM, i just consume a few scopes of BCAA and go. Fastes AM WODs will also put you in a better position to burn fat as well throughout the day. From someone who has done shift work, exercise anytime of the day is rewarding.

I read this yesterday and had to come back to say how important I think this perspective is. There’s so much talk about excercise for fitness and strength and metabolic advantage and whatnot, but linking it to hormone regulation really underscores the fact that movement is an essential component of the body’s basic functioning. A car needs both gas and oil, and a body needs both food and movement. Sure it’s 80/20, but being a minority doesn’t make it pointless. After all, no oil = dead car.

Exercise is very important aspect of life. But it is not important to start exercise instantly you can slowly include it in to your routine. The point is start with small, at weekend go hiking or bicycling with your family. Exercising makes you and your mind healthy, it will help you concentrate more.

Could you speak about exercise and being underweight? We have been GAPS (basically Paleo auto immune protocol) for a year and have seen significant healing, but we are coming off of being basically bed ridden. My daughter 16 is still fighting some major fatigue and being underweight at 5″5″ and 100 pounds. She has no muscle tone. I know it is important for her to move but I am afraid of having her over do it. I am also hoping it will give her an appetite.

Many of the same hormones that need regulating for those who are overweight and key players for those who are underweight. Sleep and exercise are both really key for regulating these hormones (helps overweight people lose weight and underweight people gain). I think it’s important to discuss his with your doctor, but my recommendation would be to go slow. Start with a gentle walk, gradually increase speed/distance. Things like yoga or swimming can be very good for building muscle and still quite gentle. The problem is that overdoing it can stress the body, and cause even more problems, so slow and steady is definitely important.

“As I delve into the specific effects of different types of exercise on different hormone systems in upcoming posts, hopefully you will find enough information to guide your decision making when it comes to prioritizing one activity over another. ”

Can you help me find these posts?

Most of this information in is the book (The Paleo Approach, link in the sidebar), but I still have about three half written posts for the blog that I still haven’t had time to finish. There’s some other interesting stuff on hormones under Living Paleo -> Hormones , but most has to do with hunger and blood sugar regulation at this point.

What an awesome reminder on all the beneficial aspects of exercise! It is so important not to forget that exercise improves many things and positively impacts your life in so many ways!

How about exercise and dealing with adrenal fatigue? Doesn’t exercise further stress the system if you are fighting adrenal fatigue? Or is it just certain kinds of exercise? Thank you!

Will you address the over exercising effects on hormones and when do you know if you have done much? I enjoy it but probably seems excessive to some.

I started cleaning up my eating 8 years ago but had pretty much ignored routine fitness till this past year. Have animals and land so active just taking care of that. Lost 25 pounds and kept off but still not were I wanted to be feeling good and healthy. So a year ago I decided to add exercise. Have hypothyroid issues. RA and nearing 60 so not going for the burn! Not the gym type and walking can be hit or miss with weather etc. My daughter had Wii fit and tried it and seemed like might work. I love it, work out in am, mix yoga, strength, aerobic, do walks when I can, have done 2 5K’s! Never felt better, stronger, rarely have pain, sleep well, lost another clothing size. My hypothyroid symptoms are much less and I have lots of energy to enjoy life. I work out about 30 minutes 3X a week and try and get a few miles in weekly. Never expected so much change from it.

I have just stepped foot into a gym for the first time in my life 2 weeks ago honestly I feel my work mate has saved my sanity after falling off the paleo wagon for nearly a year I’m back clean and exercising this time with it as i was very ill the first round of 18mnths on paleo . I feel more mentally clearer and calm after a spin class than I have in years here’s to new hope I can sleep normally and keep it goin aswell as adding something to my frame hoping to kick HS and endomentriosis for good

We’d swap it from ‘exercise’ to ‘movements’. Humans are not designed for structured exercise. We’re built to MOVE. And often throughout the day. Exercise can be inflammatory and unenjoyable, among other things. Natural movement and play, not so. And far more beneficial, enjoyable and sustainable 🙂

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