I was sitting in a doctor’s office when I was 11 yeas old. The prognosis was not good. I was born with a congenital birth defect in my right leg so severe that they said by the time I was 25 I would have a spine that looked like a swirly straw. I had 2 options. Have my leg sawed in half and lengthened over a period of 2 years that “might assist in reversing the effects” or risk a life of painful immobility. Fortunately, at the same time I was being bullied at middle school and decided to enroll in a karate class. In the same year my parents befriended a couple who owned a yoga retreat center near our house who also happened to have a daughter with a similar birth defect as I had.
Long story short, between yoga and martial arts I began to move my body in ways I never would have. Through a series of many auspicious events I became a teacher of these modalities and have been moving my body ever since. Over the years, through much adversity, I was also able to heal myself of severe anxiety and depression with movement – be it yoga, martial arts, dance, jogging, swimming (just to name a few). I have seen the positive effects of exercise a million fold. I am now 34. My spine is healthier than the average 34 year old man and I am in excellent physical shape. Though there are many contributors to my healthy lifestyle, I attribute a huge percentage of my success to movement.
There are many studies to show why exercise and movement are beneficial to the body and brain. So many that I am unable to cover them all here. Below are excerpts from few intriguing studies to inspire you to begin moving your body in new and interesting ways.
The physical connection:
We all know that exercise helps us stay in shape. However, did you know that the amount of exercise you get and your body mass index (BMI) determine how susceptible you are to developing type 2 diabetes and cardiac disease? According to the Nurses’ Health Study, diet and exercise could reduce the risk of cardiac disease by 82%. Medication can only reduce this risk by 25%. Also, diet and exercise could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 92%. (1) The better shape you are in, the more capable you are of eating foods with higher glycemic load foods with minimal consequence. Exercise generally will counteract feelings of fatigue and help productivity if done regularly. Furthermore, osteoarthritis, which affects millions of Americans each year, can be alleviated by low impact exercise programs such as yoga, Pilates, swimming, and tai chi. Statistics show that low impact exercise can improve the health of an individual diagnosed with arthritis 15-30% more significantly than medications alone. (2)
A few other physical reasons to get your body moving: Moderate exercise helps rev up the immune system so you have less chance to get a cold. Exercise can help relieve the symptoms of mild asthma. Exercise may reduce the risk of colon-cancer by speeding waste through the gut and lowering the insulin level. It may also protect against breast and prostate cancer by regulating hormone levels. Yoga and walking have been shown to reduce menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. Exercise can also help prevent erectile dysfunction and possibly benign prostate enlargement, a common cause of urinary problems. (3) Lastly, though there is no evidence that drinking milk will in any way reduce your risk of bone fracture, there is lots of evidence that exercise will. “Forget milking your cow, take your cow for a walk,” says Walter Willett, MD.
The Brain Connection:
Most people know the physical benefits of exercise, but many do not know how invaluable it is for brain health. We live in a world where anxiety and depression are rampant in adults and children alike. More and more people are at risk of brain related illnesses, including ADD/ADHD, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and stroke. We often turn to prescription medication before addressing the real problem, which is that we are becoming a culture of immobile, undernourished citizens. Though nutrition and environment are also important factors in these types of diseases, exercise can be one of your best tools to build a strong, healthy brain.
Studies done on over 5000 people over the age of 65 showed that exercise and movement significantly increased their memory and greatly reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s. Adults who are sedentary are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s and dementia. (6)
A study done on 156 patients diagnosed with a major depressive disorder showed that 30 minutes of exercise each day was just as effective, and in some cases more effective, than prescription medications. (4)
In a similar study, stroke risk was cut by 57% in people who walked as little as 20 minutes a day. (5) Walking can be uniquely beneficial for your brain because it increases circulation of blood, and with it, oxygen and glucose, to the this organ. Walking is not strenuous, so your leg muscles don’t use up extra oxygen and glucose like they do during other forms of exercise. (6) Certain forms of tai chi and yoga have similar effects. In addition, practicing yoga and tai chi has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety through their structured movements and focused breathing techniques.
Also intriguing is a study that showed that one of the three most effective ways to enhance brain function is by learning a new form of movement that challenges you to focus. This could be anything from a new style of dance, to a new form a martial arts, to a new sport, like skiing, etc. The point is for it to be new and challenging for the brain. This has been shown to not only improve short-term memory but to also help in the recovery and preservation of old memories. (The other two most effective ways to enhance the brain are learning a new musical instrument and learning a new language.) (7) Many people could improve their mental performance in school and at work if they got a little exercise every day.
In conclusion, whether you desire to get stronger, lose weight, alleviate anxiety or depression, combat stroke, or simply improve your overall health and wellness you don’t need to compete in marathons to reap the benefits of exercise. Be it dance, yoga, Budokon, tai chi, biking, swimming, walking, etc., the point is to get your body moving. You can be certain that exercise of any form or intensity sans injury will improve the overall health of your body and brain. The most dangerous form of exercise you could do is none. So, get moving and have fun!
1) Willett, Walter. Class Lecture, Institute for Integrative Nutrition. New York. 2005.
(2) Lando, Laura. Doctors’ New Advice for Joint Pain: Get Moving. Wall Street Journal. New York. April 12, 2011.
(3) Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Course handouts. New York. 2010.
(4) Miller, Michael Craig. Understanding Depression. Harvard Health Publications. Cambridge, MA. 2011.
(5) Medina, John. Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press. 2010.
(6) The Human Brain. The Franklin Institute Online. Retrieved from: http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/exercise.html#physicalexercise on June 26, 2011.
(7) Doidge, Norman, Bond, Jim. The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Grand Haven, MI: Brilliance Audio. 2008.