I feel like I have to write something about exercise because it’s one of the pillars of good health and something that our bodies are designed to do. For ages, it’s key benefit has been sold to us as losing weight. Yes, we hear the odd bit about feel-good endorphins but the take-home message is that we’d better get moving or get fat. Well, on top of making physical activity feel like just another thing to beat ourselves up about, this totally overstates the effectiveness of exercise as a weightloss tool! I bet most of us have had the experience of flogging ourselves on an exercise machine in the gym, only to see on the readout that we’ve burned the calorific equivalent of half a chocolate digestive…
However, exercise (and there are so many flavours to choose from) is 100% essential for a healthy body and mind for tons of reasons that aren’t related to losing weight. The government recommends 150 minutes of cardio each week (brisk walking counts!) plus at least 2 days a week when you are doing strength exercises that work your whole body – both of which sound reasonably achievable. One caveat though for any chat about the benefits of exercise is that once you get into the hardcore side of things, involving serious training programs, the impact of exercise on the body gets more complicated.
What’s it helping?
- Healthy Bones. Apart from swimming, most exercise that involves standing up will help to strengthen our bones, and anything involving bouncing or lifting weight will be really beneficial. Keeping our bones strong should be a lifelong goal – as we build up to maximum bone density in our 20s, and then try to hang on to as much as possible into old age. As usual (sigh), this is a much bigger issue for women, because once our oestrogen plummets with the menopause, bone density can take a really big hit.
- A happy gut. ‘Normal’ exercise has been shown to improve digestion with a healthier gut bacteria profile found in active vs inactive people. It’s also fairly common knowledge that it can help with constipation, and in terms of specific exercises, there’s loads of information about yoga for constipation out there. Who knew?!
- Stronger Immunity. Our lymphatic system is highly underrated but crucial for immunity and detoxification in the body, as it sweeps cellular wastes off to our liver and kidneys and matures and deploys immune cells. Unlike blood, lymph fluid hasn’t got a pump to move it around the body, so it depends on the movement of muscles for healthy circulation.
- Muscle Mass. Well obviously exercise is good for our muscles but the reasons for this being a good thing are easy to take for granted when you’re young(ish) and relatively strong, but reveal themselves as we age. Decent muscles protect our joints and of course moving them has benefits for our cardiovascular system. Also, and this is a biggie, muscle mass stores blood sugar to use when we exercise, helping to avoid the cycle of insulin release followed by fat storage which contributes to insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes). Even a 15 minute walk after a meal has been shown to have a significant effect on lowering blood sugar. After we hit 50, muscle mass operates on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis – I’m aiming for the ‘use-it’ option.
- The brain. The effects of exercise on the brain are huge, huge, huge and what is increasingly apparent is that activity doesn’t just make us feel good, it also improves cognitive function. For example, aerobic exercise has been shown to stimulate the part of our brains which governs learning and memory. There’s lots of research going on to see if exercise can affect the symptoms of dementia, and I think it’s pretty common knowledge these days that it’s been shown to improve mood in cases of depression.
Knowing all of those benefits (and there are more, hormone balance, staying youthful, the list goes on…) is a source of motivation for me but to be honest, it’s the fact that without exercise I feel really low that’s the biggest driver to get me moving. Thinking about the various things that I’ve enjoyed and all of the activities that my pals do, like Pilates and dancing (maybes) and loch-swimming (never!) there’s no reason to get bored of things. Currently, I love the combination of walking and a couple of full-on gym classes each week but fancy something stretchy just to round things out. There are a few things that help me lodge exercise firmly into my routine.
- Go with friends. There’s a chance to catch up on some goss, bask in your collective glory when you’re done, and a bit of pressure to force you out of the house. For anything that involves having to get up before 6am, unless you’re a weird morning person, this is is essential. If you can’t get a pal to join you, group classes offer the same camaraderie.
- Find something that’s fun for you. I know, it’s totally obvious, but if you hate the gym – and I find running on a treadmill sooo much harder than running outdoors – maybe there’s an outdoor option?
- Build physical inefficiency into your life. This might mean parking in the Siberian section of the shopping centre car park (suits my parking capabilities…), moving your printer away from your desk so you have to keep getting up or getting off the bus a stop early. Have you heard about sitting being the new smoking?
- Get a dog! I know I always bang on about having a dog, and it’s a huge decision and totally not for everyone, but there’s no getting round going for a walk, and once you’re out it’s always fab.
- Don’t think that you can change your whole life routine to accommodate exercise – it sometimes works for a short period, but then the wheels fall off and you end up shelling out for an unused gym membership or something equally galling. Thinking creatively about how you can fit activity in without too much upheaval to everything else has always worked best for me.
How do you manage to fit exercise in and what do you do?
Recipe: I was planning to do a chia seed pudding recipe because it seemed like a great option – prepare ahead, full of great nutrients, grab and go, etc, etc, but I tried it and found it slightly reminiscent of frogspawn. I still love chia seeds! Just not in pudding form.
So here’s another recipe that you can make ahead, and I actually prefer it after a day in the fridge. It contains cabbage which is a nutritional powerhouse, pumpkin and sunflower seeds that are full of minerals, and olive oil with it’s anti-inflammatory and heart protective properties. I wouldn’t attempt this without a food processor to do the slicing and grating for me. It comes from the website Cookie and Kate which has loads of great recipes:
Super-Healthy Seeded Coleslaw – makes a huge bowlful!
- ¼ of a finely sliced red cabbage
- ¼ of a finely sliced green cabbage
- 3 large grated carrots
- Large handful of chopped fresh parsley
- 6 tablespoons of seeds. Choose any mixture of pumpkin, sunflower and sesame.
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Mix together the cabbage, carrots and parsley in a bowl big enough to give everything a good stir.
- Measure out your seeds into a small frying pan and toast until you get a nice toasty smell and the sunflower seeds start to pop. Then add them to the bowl.
- Whisk the dressing ingredients together
- Add the dressing to the slaw and toss until all of the ingredients are lightly coated in dressing.
If you are going to make this on the same day as eating it, maybe factor in a couple of hours of marinating time.
Top tip: I was listening to a podcast by fitness trainer to the stars, Vinnie Tortorich (who has an amazing voice and dates Kristen Scott-Thomas’ sister Serena BTW), and his response to the question of which one piece of gym equipment he would buy if he had to stay in his house to train was…. a skipping rope. I have been meaning to get one anyway because my skipping skillz in class are so appalling and now it’s definitely on the shopping list. There are tons of videos on youtube of ridiculously ripped individuals showing you how to get the hang of skipping; I like this one which is a bit less mental than the others.Follow me on facebook or twitter.