Society loves to frame the benefits of working out for purely physical reasons: to build muscle mass, improve heart health, reduce cholesterol, and a laundry list more. Although there is very little doubt these days to the scientific objectivity behind these healthful physical effects, there is actually a lot more than meets the eye.
I started working out in my second year of high school, which was around five years ago. For most of my childhood and early adolescence, I would consider myself as a pretty large kid. Sideways kind of large. What that came with was constant chaffs and teases, and although most of which were in the light of camaraderie and friendly banter, I still found them to be quite annoying. Halfway through the first semester of my junior year, I decided something had to change. I started jogging, then running, then added weightlifting into the picture. The physical returns were undoubtedly visible — and I was definitely rocking a much healthier body. But the advantages didn’t stop there.
“If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed”
Along with that much improved physique, I gained confidence as an unintentional byproduct. I was happier with the way I looked, and I made that show in the way I presented myself in front of a crowd — from the way I docked, the way I walked, and the way I talked. And it turns out, that did open a lot of doors to me, doors I never even guessed I had the power to open before I started exercising. These became the gateway to businesses, personal relationships, and better education.
Essentially, I began to live a richer life. My confidence allowed me to connect with high profile people, and that lead to even more doors to open. I was surrounded with high quality people, and I was thus driven to do high quality work as well. Back in my high school days, I noticed a surge of learning motivation in evenings that followed an earlier work-out session. As I then began to increase the frequency of my exercises, this motivation ‘high’ became almost omnipresent during my highly productive evenings.
I was never the type of person to describe happiness as a distinguishable and tangible feeling, but I guess that was what happiness felt like. It was certainly not the hedonistic kind of happiness that society is accustomed with — none of that temporary-dopamine-rush BS. It was instead more like a slow-release aspirin tab, little by little sloughing off bits of joy and grains of meaning to collectively form this enduring, long-term sense of profound happiness.
Then, I decided to become a doctor. I took up medicine in my undergrad, and fast forward four years and now here I am sitting in my university lecture hall. I have taken the habit of exercise with me throughout my journey, but now I feel like I’ve toned down my scientific muscles to explain the benefits of exercise with a more physiological zest.
I did some digging up on various sources — YouTube, articles, journals, books, magazines — and here are some gems I found on the topic of exercise that could explain the benefits I obtained with exercise, or in other words, why working out works.
Exercise does not cause weight loss
Contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that exercise posits no significant correlation with weight loss, but it does increase muscle mass, which improves metabolism and supplement the fat burn process. Dr. Robert Lustig, a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, however says that exercise is still the single best thing you can do to with your life to improve health.
In an edition of the TIME magazine in 2016, there was a famous column about the science of exercise, which was written by Dr. Mike Tarnopolsky, a genetic metabolic neurologist working at the McMaster University in Ontario. He says, “If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed”.
A big brain is necessary to facilitate complex movements, and executing such movements and getting your heart rate up bolsters your brain power. A Californian research in 2002 revealed that students with a higher fitness score go on to have higher test scores. Some other more recent studies have shown similar results. Upon this knowledge, many countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea have added an hour a day into the school curriculum — for sports rather than for actual academic lessons — yet the educational indexes in those countries are among the highest worldwide. Exercise, scientists have found, actually primes the brain for faster learning.
A substance called BDNF is responsible for phenomenon. It’s short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor and it plays a huge role in cognitive functioning. BDNF stimulates brain growth, which builds extra room for additional informational storage. Moreover, it serves as a cognitive understructure, constructing the crucial foundation for learning. A 2013 study showed that 20–40 minutes of exercise increased BDNF by about 32%.
The proposed reason for this: movement triggers the brain to think that something important is happening. This may have been useful to our primitive ancestors — say in the event of an escapade from a predator — and then subconsciously passed on to us.
Another player in this phenomenon is dopamine, which I touched upon briefly in the opening paragraph, and is a neurotransmitter molecule that gives us motivation, attention, and gives us satisfaction after we do things. Exercise boosts motivation by increasing dopamine storage and triggering the creation of dopamine receptors in the reward centre. Essentially, you are left with a heightened sense of willpower to do your chores. Some other famous neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, are also increased in exercise, which similarly boost happiness and reduce the risk for acquiring depression.
Okay, last chemical substance I swear, and I bet you’re all familiar with this one. Cortisol! This hormone is famously known as the stress hormone, and is responsible for the buildup of visceral fat — and that makes up the mush that’s currently sitting comfortably under your shirt. This is the reason people say stress makes us gain weight. Moreover, brain degradation occurs with increased levels of cortisol — particularly affecting the hippocampus — which is the part of your brain that is responsible for memory and learning. Exercise helps decrease your cortisol levels.
Phew! That was a lot to digest. To sum it all up, even if you feel particularly healthy already, exercise can help further elevate that level of health and make you feel better still. How do we start exercising? You can refer to one of my article for a short guide to get your workout wheels rolling, but the concept is simple:
- Create realistic goals
- Start slow, go slow
- Aim for sustainability
- Just begin!
Good luck! I certainly do hope you‘ll discover the benefits that I did with exercise. As for me, I’m probably going to leave my lecture and hit the gym now.