5 Overlooked Benefits of Developing the Habit of Staying Physically Active

November 19th, 2017 to most is an unremarkable date but for Texas native, Vance Hinds, it was the start of the rest of his life. Mr. Hinds, 52 at the time, sat listening to a podcast featuring his favorite comedians growing in inspiration. He listened how Bert Kreischer had lost weight and managed to run a marathon. On November 19th, he decided to give himself one year to lose as much weight as possible. 

He stood atop the scales at 475lbs (215kg) with a plan to exercise as many days of the week as he could manage. What transpired played out over social media was a journey that inspired millions. When the same day of 2018 rolled around, Vance Hinds took his place on the scales to read 277lbs (125kg); a loss of 198lbs. January 2021, Hinds weighed 223lbs. 

Photo Cred. Extrasual Website

The remarkable story exhibits extraordinary willpower and motivation but most importantly the effects of keeping a physically active lifestyle. While we are all aware of the weight loss and physical fitness impacts, so much more was happening to Vance Hinds physically and mentally. As a keystone habit, exercise permeates every aspect of your life positively influencing body and mind. 

Beyond the obvious, what are the benefits of staying physically active?

  1. Dramatically Increased Life Expectancy

Exercise is more than the pursuit of a beach bod. It is fundamental to our physical being to stave off disease and improve life expectancy. You may already know but COPD, diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes, bone health, heart attacks and cancers risks are all reduced by maintaining a regular exercise schedule. Even asthma is improved provided the exercise does not feature sustained extreme effort. 

Perhaps not the most joyous of subjects but nonetheless important, burning as little as 1000 calories a week can reduce all cause mortality rates by up to 50%. Inactive middle-aged women have a 29% higher risk of cancer and up to 52% higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. While the statistics can be scary, they reinforce the transcendental importance of continued exercise. 

  1. Enriched Energy Levels and Vitality for Life

Exercising regularly increases your fitness and stamina but the energy benefits apply in a range of different ways. The short term energy spike is effective enough to come with the advice that exercising within 2 hours of going to bed increases sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep).

As you exercise, your body releases a variety of hormones intended to keep you from fatiguing. Epinephrine, endocannabinoids and norepinephrine are activated to give you additional energy. Your body is programmed to release these hormones to pursue the exercise as it thinks it is in pursuit of a meal. Many high level executives have been known to use exercise as a way to produce higher energy supplies ahead of their day. 

In the longer term, chronic fatigue syndrome diminishes in people who commit to staying active. Studies have shown that regular exercise improves persistent fatigue in healthy individuals but is also effective in people suffering with progressive illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDs and multiple sclerosis. 

  1. Better Mental Health and Resistance to Depression

Truthfully, the mental benefits of exercise could be described in multiple books without ever fully detailing the scope. Depression, anxiety and stress are all reduced by frequent exercise due to the release of hormones in the brain. As little as 20 minutes of exercise a day yields immediate improvements to mood in numerous studies. 

To give you a small window into what happens in your brain, here are some of the hormones and chemicals activated through exercise: 

  • Norepinephrine, Tryptophan, Dopamine and Serotonin: All 4 are released during exercise to regulate your brain response to stress. The regular release of these positively influencing chemicals improves your resistance to depression, improves your mood and ability to cope over the long run.
  • Endocannabinoids and Cortisol: During sustained exercises like running, swimming and cycling, your brain releases endocannabinoids to enhance your abilities to keep going, resist pain and boost your mood. This in turn increases the cortisol discharged to the amygdala and prefrontal cortex reducing and regulating stress and helping to combat depression. 
  • Vitamin D – Exercising outdoors increases your intake of Vitamin D. A deficiency in Vit D is found in many patients suffering fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression and where supplements or outdoor exercise are taken, symptoms have been shown to improve. 

While quite a few things happen during exercise, this gives an indication of what takes place in your brain during exercise and the applications to enhancing mental health. If depression, anxiety, stress or any other mental challenges are a regular feature in your day to day, exercise is often a prescription you will encounter from doctors. As major advocators of proactive mental health, this impact is hugely important to highlight. 

  1. Boosted Brain Health and Cognition

Believe it or not, consistent aerobic exercise that causes you to sweat and increase your heart rate causes your hippocampus to grow in size. Why is this important? The hippocampus is embedded deep in your temporal lobe and is responsible for your memory, reactions, focus, learning and overall cognition. 

By increasing daily exercise, you reduce the risk of typically age-related illnesses like Alzheimers and dementia. Dr. Wendy Suzuki regards exercise as the single most transformative thing you can do for your brain today. Suzuki goes on to explain that a single workout can decrease brain fog, improve your attentiveness and reaction times. The benefits caused, in part, by the increased rate of oxygenation to the brain, last for at least 2 hours post-exercise. 

In the instance that the above is not enough to convince you of the cognitive benefits, the University of British Columbia found that exercise increases growth factors. These are the chemicals in your brain that affect your brain cells, blood vessels in the brain and enhance the survival of new cells. The older you get, the more important it becomes to retain regular cell reproduction as the body tends to slow down!

  1. Improved Sleep Cycle

If someone asked why sleep is important, would you have an intelligible answer? The importance of sleep is often overlooked or pigeon holed as necessary without any depth of explanation. 

As another keystone habit, sleep impacts your appetite, weight, mental health, life expectancy, susceptibility to viruses, diseases and accidents. Your entire immune system comes alive in a night’s sleep repairing damaged cells around the body and brain. Suffice to say, yes, it is important and finding ways to improve your sleep cycle are integral. 

Exercise is one of the best things you can do to improve sleep. Exercise, at least 2 hours before sleep, improves the secretion of melatonin allowing you to fall asleep quicker and enjoy a better night’s sleep. Insomniacs and the elderly are routinely prescribed an exercise regime to counteract sleep disorders. Sleep quality, depth, duration and sleep efficiency (time in bed v time spent asleep) are all benefited from staying physically active. 

What do the centenarians do? 100 year+ commonalities

Very few people make it to 100 and very few places can boast a community of these long lifers. Villagrande and Okinawa are two such places with extraordinary centenarian ratios where many researchers visit to find out the secrets to longevity. Aside from good genes, few commonalities exist in the 100+ brigade. Things you expect such as not over-eating and eating healthily were important factors. 

Right alongside eating habits were having a purpose, exercise and enjoyment of the outdoors. Making physical fitness a part of their lifestyle is how they incorporate exercise. They spend less time sitting in traffic, watching TV or at a desk and more time tending to gardens, strolling with their friends or in the case of the men in Villagrande, herding sheep. 

In Conclusion

Vance Hinds embarked on a journey to lose weight through regular exercise. 254 pounds lighter, his entire life has changed. His commitment to the cause involved posting a video of progress every week for the first year documenting his success. Nowadays, Hinds continues as Ellis County Attorney, runs a successful website charting his journey, has a podcast, authored a book and continuously inspires thousands.

What started out as a challenge to himself has resulted in benefits far beyond weight loss. The quality of life afforded by his transformation is clearly evident through his many achievements and happiness levels. These are benefits available to us all. 

Improving our lives typically requires a multi-faceted approach but exercise is proven to enhance every element of the necessary chain reaction. Exercise leads to better mental and physical health, better sleep and life expectancy. If you want more from life, staying active is the place to start! 

Photo by Tim Foster