I oftentimes overhear friends and strangers talking about exercise in terms of number of calories burned. The thought being: you must have sweated off hundreds of calories during your boxing class, so it’s totally okay to indulge in a slice of chocolate cake when you get home—right? Not quite.
Most of us know that when we exercise, we burn calories and build muscle mass and strength. But what many of us sometimes overlook is the notion that movement goes far beyond “calories in and calories out”. Ahead, I’ll cover the truth you need to know about exercise: how they help regulate other parts of our body, and how to look past the calorie counting.
Active Lymphatic System
Our lymphatic system is our body’s built in sanitation system. The lymph nodes, ducts, and fluids that make up the largest circulatory system of the body, are key to flushing out toxins and waste materials. It also plays a key role in fighting infections and building our immune response by circulating fluid and white blood cells. Unlike the circulatory system, however, which has the help of the heart to move blood through the body, the lymphatic system needs a little extra help moving fluid through the body.
The good thing is that exercise can help ramp up our lymphatic system. Proper flow largely depends on deep breathing and body movement. As your muscles tighten, tiny one-way valves open and close, guiding fluid through the lymphatic vessels. Rebounding (jumping on a mini trampoline with gentle bounces), swimming, and even walking are great for helping to maintain the flow. Stretching and yoga poses are especially effective and can help direct lymph fluid through deep vessels in the chest.
Most of the detoxification in our body happens in our kidneys and liver, but when the load gets too heavy to handle, our pores and skin pitch in to lighten the load. In fact, studies have shown that sweating helps lower levels of heavy metals like lead and arsenic and Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical contaminant found in plastics. So, get sweaty! Aim to sweat at least once a day and mix it up to naturally increase your bodies ability to detox.
When we exercise, our heart rate and blood pressure increases to deliver blood to our muscles and circulate oxygen throughout our body. Our heart is a muscle, so just like other muscles in your body, it gets stronger. Overtime, regular exercise also improves the function of the heart by making the circulatory system more efficient and more resistant to the buildup of plaque, which can lead to heart disease.
But exercise doesn’t have to be high intensity to produce heart health benefits. According to a 2017 review published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, low to moderate intensity exercise such as yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise. The study looked at health outcomes for participants ranging from young and healthy, to older with various health conditions. The results showed that those who took yoga classes saw improvements in several factors related to heart disease risk. In addition, the review found that they also lost an average of five pounds, lowerd their blood pressure, and decreased their levels of harmful LDL cholesterol.
No matter how you decide to move your body—whether it’s walking, lifting, or practicing yoga—you will most certainly be taking steps to a healthy and more efficient heart.
As we age, a combination of age-related changes, inactivity, and inadequate nutrition gradually steal bone tissue from our bones. As bones grow more fragile, they become susceptible to fractures and injuries from incidents as minor as tripping over a crack in the sidewalk. Weight-bearing exercises, like jumping, climbing stairs, or squats, can counteract these effects by helping our bones stay strong. And like muscle, bone is a tissue that responds to exercise by becoming stronger. Overtime, strong bones can help minimize the risk of fractures and other injuries.
Exercise boasts countless benefits to the digestive system, including reduced risk of colon cancer, diverticular disease, and constipation. More recently, new research has shined a positive light on how exercise affects the collection of bacteria in our gut called the microbiome. In a recent study published in the journal of Medicine and Sciences in Sports and Exercise, researchers found that exercise may change the composition of our gut bacteria and improve our health over time. Scientists are still peeling back many layers of the impact of gut health on overall body function, but the research looks very promising.
Ever heard the phrase, “endorphin high”? Well, the basic mechanism is this: when you exercise, your body sends chemicals to your brain to release endorphins, the feel-good chemical that’s responsible for enhancing positive emotions. But that’s not all it can help with. If you’re feeling anxious, a good workout can also help with that. Stressed? Exercise can help with that as well. Endorphins also act as natural painkillers and can improve sleep. Research even indicates that modest amounts of exercise can make a difference in your mood, so you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits.
Exercise is a lifestyle choice that’s about balance. Finding ways to move and shake throughout the week is a way to show yourself gratitude. And when we set our intentions and commit, we cultivate compassion when we follow through. Checking in with ourselves regularly and revisiting our goals to make sure they’re in line with our intentions, ensures that exercise is more than just exercise. It’s also a vehicle for self-awareness. It’s easy to move through life passively and “in our heads”. But when we take the time to move regularly, we cultivate an awareness of our body in the moment.
During your next workout, cease the barrage of thoughts and to-do lists that interfere with your workout. Hone in on your physical sensations and bring your mind back to the moment if you notice it starting to drift away. Remember that exercise goes far beyond calories burned. Exercise is self-care.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julianka Bell is a Registered Dietitian, nutrition consultant, and founder of Nutrition Her, a platform focused on having an honest conversation about women and food. She works with food and wellness brands to help tell their story, and provides personalized nutrition counseling in New York City. She holds a Master of Science in Nutrition from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. You can find Julianka on Instagram @nutrition.her.