We often think of exercise as a way to improve heart health and lose weight. In addition to these commonly known benefits, exercise helps prevent diseases and is a great way to keep many of the body’s systems working well as we age. Below is a list of our body’s functions that benefit from exercise and are less-commonly known:
1) The Brain:
Routine exercise helps maintain functions of the brain that normally decline as we age. The motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination, typically decreases its ability to regenerate when we reach our 60s and later in life, making it more difficult to learn new skills and perform tasks requiring complex coordination, such as playing basketball or tennis. Routine exercise helps maintain the balance of chemicals in the brain that allows it to help prevent the decline of coordination and balance as we age.
Exercise also helps cognitive function, or the ability to make memories and to concentrate on a task at hand. Like motor function, the parts of our brain that control memory and concentration often decline with age, sometimes leading to a disease called dementia. Exercise has been found to decrease the rate of degeneration of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with making memories, and increase blood flow to various parts of the brain, which in turn leads to maintaining memories and improving concentration.
Exercise is also becoming a valuable part of treating neurologic diseases that affect motor function, such as multiple sclerosis, or cognitive function, such as Parkinson’s disease.
2) The Immune System:
The immune system is our body’s protection against infections, and like a well-run army, is made of many types of blood cells that communicate with each other and coordinate to destroy infecting bacteria, parasites and viruses. NK cells and dendritic cells are two of the components of our immune systems. NK cells are our body’s soldiers that kill objects which our body recognizes as threatening, such as infecting bacteria or parasites. Dendritic cells allow our bodies to determine which cells belong inside us, such as our own blood cells, and which are threatening and should trigger an immune response.
As we age, we produce fewer immune cells, and have decreased function of certain cells in our blood, such as NK cells and dendritic cells. Exercise helps maintain the ability of the body to produce higher levels of NK cells and more functional dendritic cells, helping our armies to stay in top form.
Exercise improves bone strength. Bone density is an important measure of strength in our bones that naturally decreases as we age; low bone density can lead to diseases called osteopenia or the more severe osteoporosis, in which bones are thinning and have a higher risk of breaking. Exercise, along with adequate vitamin D and calcium intake, is important in maintaining bone density to prevent osteoporosis and even help reverse it if it occurs.
4) Mental Health:
Exercise benefits mental health in several ways, helping both improve mood and help cope with stress. Aerobic exercise causes release of endorphins, which are hormones that decrease pain and lead to improved mood. Endorphins released as a result of long distance running often cause a euphoric feeling that is called a “runner’s high”.
Exercise also helps the body cope with stress. When we experience ongoing stress, our brains become accustomed to having higher levels of stress-related hormones that cause decreased mood, fatigue, irritability, and physical changes such as weight gain. Exercise, through the release of endorphins and other hormones, helps balance the stress response to improve mood and energy when we are dealing with ongoing stressors.
Exercise is even being developed as a treatment to help psychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia, depression, and autism.
5) Men’s Health:
Men’s sexual health involves complex interactions between the brain, reproductive organs, and many hormones throughout the body. Exercise has been associated with improvements in men’s reproductive and sexual health in multiple ways. Regular exercise, especially in middle-aged and elderly men, can help prevent or even improve erectile dysfunction. Moderate exercise may also increase the sperm count, which when low is a common cause of infertility, or difficulty having children. Finally, exercise, especially weight training, increases the body’s production of testosterone, which helps men feel more energy, improved mood and confidence, and increases physical strength and muscle tone.
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