The Top Five Reasons to Sweat Hard

I’ve written a lot lately on exercise as the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. How regular, vigorous exercise will transform your body, your mind and your life. Let’s hit the high points with my top five reasons to work out. In no particular order:

1. You’ll live longer.

Recent research done at the Mayo clinic has shown that HIIT training won’t just help you live longer, it will actually make you younger.

First, what is HIIT training? High Intensity Interval Training. Short bursts of intense activity, followed by brief rest periods. I’m a fan of Inferno Hot Pilates, a one hour HIIT class where we do sets varying in length from 20 seconds to a minute, followed by 10 to 20 second rest periods. There are, of course, other types of HIIT exercises, my favourite of which is hockey. The important thing is not which one that you do, it’s that you do one. Why?

Return to the Mayo Clinic study I mentioned. They studied the effects of HIIT training at the genetic level and found two amazing things. First, the participants telomeres got longer and second, they had a dramatic increase in mitochondrial capacity.

Holy word salad Andrew, what does that mean?

First, telomeres. Telomeres are the end caps on your DNA strands, and they get shorter with repeated cell division. In short, telomeres are a measure of cellular age; the shorter the telomere, the older the cell. They found HIIT training increased telomere length, making the cells genetically younger.

Second, mitochondrial capacity. The HIIT workout increased the mitochondria’s ability to generate energy. Your mitochondria wear out as you age, and keeping them healthy reverses some of the signs of decline as cells age.

2. You’ll be healthier.

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of exercise. For many of us it’s weight loss, and losing those extra pounds will make you healthier. Those extra pounds cause a laundry list of health problems. There are the obvious and well know ones; heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes, but there are other risks to being overweight; osteoporosis, fatty liver, kidney disease and the increased risk of some cancers.

Beyond the issues of excess weight, vigorous exercise lowers your cortisol levels, and improves your sleep (more on those later). High cortisol and sleep deprivation both reduce the effectiveness of your immune response. Hard exercise will strengthen your immune system, by definition making you healthier.

3. You’ll be happier.

What’s the greatest barrier to happiness? I suppose that question has 7 billion answers, one for each of us. But if we dig into the reasons underlying our unhappiness, I’m willing to bet that stress will be found in there somewhere.

Stress is characterized by the body’s release of cortisol. Cortisol is a good and necessary hormone in our bodies, important in metabolic function and a key component of our fight or flight response. Unfortunately, it tends to build up in our systems, and if not broken down leads to; anxiety problems, weight gain, heart disease, poor sleep and a weakened immune system.

One of the best ways to de-stress yourself, to break down that cortisol, is hard exercise. There are others; meditation, prayer, socialization, breathing exercises, music, solitude. But exercise not only breaks down the cortisol, it has all the other benficial effects we’re talking about here, is probably the most efficient in terms of time required and can be combined with others (breathing, meditation, socialization) through yoga.

4. You’ll sleep better.

This one ties back to stress, and health and longevity. Sleep deprivation is very, very bad, and is closely associated with stress. People who are sleep deprived have serious problems with cognitive decline (leading to forgetfulness and mood swings), lowered immune response, weight gain, and poor co-ordination and balance (leading to increased falls and accidents).

So, you need to sleep better. How do you do that? Since high cortisol levels cause sleep problems, start there. Exercise hard to break down the cortisol, while tiring out the body and brain. Then make sure you have a night time routine to allow yourself to relax, slow down and prep yourself for sleep. Go back to the de-stressing list; meditation, breathing exercises, prayer.

5. And finally, for your vanity, you’ll look better.

Exercise does a number of things to improve our looks. We can start by going back to weight loss. Like it or not, our culture’s beauty ideal, for men and women alike, is thin and muscular.

A few months ago one of my yoga teachers complimented another by saying she looked buff. I was puzzled at this because I’m old enough that telling a woman she was buff is not something I think of as a compliment but it was both intended and received as one. Go figure. Anyway, lose weight, gain muscle, look and feel more attractive.

Then there’s the worlds cheapest face lift, a smile. You ever see someone who’s all stressed out smile? Ya, me neither. Ditch the stress, lose the frown and get a smile on your face. You’ll feel better, and you’ll look better.

Finally, go back to point one. Hard exercise is making you genetically younger. Again, like it or not, one of the components of beauty is youth. Look younger and you’ll be seen to be more attractive. From personal experience, people tend to guess my age anywhere from 5 to 10 years on the low side.