Are you like me — a step counter? These days more and more of us are wearing trackers to monitor the number of steps we take because we understand the links between activity and better health. We know that meeting specified goals of even moderate-intensity exercise like walking can reduce the risk of developing diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
While the physical benefits of regular activity are well-known, recent research indicates that getting off your butt delivers some unexpected windfalls. These include helping your body to manage stress and stabilize mood. Active people are less likely to experience anxiety or depression than those who are more sedentary, in part because movement stimulates the production of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.
Here are some other ways that getting off your butt does wonders for both your body and your soul.
Goes to Bat for Chronic Pain
Chronic pain is a debilitating condition, which for many reasons can be challenging to treat. While experts often disagree on therapies, few question that physical activity can rewire a poorly functioning pain system. As the saying goes, “motion is lotion;” the more we move the less likely we are to experience pain.
Studies show that practices like regular strength and flexibility training, and those involving gentle movement, like yoga and Tai Chi, build muscle strength, reduce stiffness, and improve the range of motion, all of which help to keep pain under control. These activities have also been shown to improve the expression of certain genes and to increase production of natural opioids, boosting mental health.
Builds Your Microbiome
Research shows that physical activity helps to heal a sickly gut, which has been linked with numerous disease states. A healthy gut is populated by many different bacterial species, a state known as bacterial diversity. One 2023 study of unathletic middle-aged people with normal weight found that moderate physical activity (at least 150 minutes a week) boosted bacterial diversity, increasing the presence of health-promoting microbes.
Another study showed that after 6 weeks of intensive training, already-lean participants had more brain-boosting short-chain fatty acids, compounds produced by certain beneficial bacteria. (Obese participants whose microbiomes were less healthy to start with, did not fare as well.) This study also demonstrated the importance of sticking with a program. After 6 weeks of sedentary behavior, the benefits of exercising were largely reversed. a compelling reminder of the “use it or lose it” dictum.
Even so, you don’t need to be extremely active to reap the rewards of movement. Just getting out of the house for a daily walk and social interaction can benefit health by expanding your bacterial community. Researchers from England’s Oxford University found that people with large social networks had more diverse microbiomes than those who were less social.
Fine-Tunes Circadian Rhythms
When it comes to staying healthy, sleep may be your new superpower. Circadian rhythms affect many bodily functions, in addition to how well you sleep; their disruption has been linked with development of numerous diseases and even how long you will live. Among its benefits exercise improves the expression of genes that regulate circadian rhythms. Scientists are currently studying how physical activity can recalibrate circadian rhythms with a view toward preventing disease.
Recent research suggests that getting adequate exercise helps you to live longer. One 2022 study found that even people who were genetically predisposed to die young could expand their lifespan by exercising regularly. Other research has shown that exercising ramps up production of NAD+, a molecule that is being actively studied for its longevity-promoting benefits.
Begets Healthy Grandchildren
The branch of science known as The Developmental Origins of Health and Disease showed that the vulnerability for many chronic diseases can be biologically transmitted to offspring and even subsequent generations. Most of this research focused on what we now call “nutritional programming.” When a pregnant woman is undernourished, this deficiency “programs” her fetus to adjust key body systems, raising their risk for chronic disease later in life.
Recent research is showing that physical fitness has a similar impact. For instance, physical activity triggers epigenetic modifications that reshape DNA.These changes can be transmitted to offspring. For instance, physically fit mothers produce offspring who are less likely to develop certain metabolic diseases.
For obvious reasons, most of developmental programming research has involved pregnant women. However, recent studies are showing that the father’s sperm can transmit similar patterns. For instance, offspring of fathers who are fit tend to have healthier metabolisms and brains.
One 2022 laboratory study showed that these benefits extend beyond the first generation. This mouse study found that that when females exercised during pregnancy, numerous markers indicated that their grandchildren were significantly healthier than those in a control group, even if they were not active themselves.
As the ancient saying goes, “a healthy body, healthy mind.” Today we’re just beginning to understand how deep this relationship goes.
Judith Finlayson is a journalist and bestselling author with a longstanding interest in health and nutrition. Her most recent book, You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease, was published in 2019. It has been translated into 7 foreign-language editions, including French, German, Spahis and Japanese. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.