Head to Toe: Your Body on Exercise

Want to slow down the aging process, look better, feel happier, sleep more soundly, have more energy and rev up your love life? Exercise! 

Exercise is very nearly the perfect anti-illness, anti-aging prescription. Here, we break down how exercise is good for your body. 

Bones

Your skeleton is made of living tissue that is constantly being broken down and replaced. When new bone creation doesn’t keep pace with the removal of old bone, osteoporosis results. It’s a risk that increases with age and is especially prevalent in postmenopausal Caucasian and Asian women.

"The good news is that, regardless of age, your bones and muscles will both respond to exercise by getting stronger, increasing the acceleration of new tissue creation," says Hira Kohli, MD, family medicine physician with Gwinnett Medical Group.

While bone mass (density) peaks in your 20s, you can prevent bone density loss with regular, weight-bearing exercise, including walking, hiking, jogging, dancing and playing tennis. Although non-weight-bearing exercises, like swimming and bicycling, don't prevent osteoporosis, they can help keep your muscles strong, coordination sharp and balance stable, all of which contribute to bone health by preventing falls and bone fractures.

Skin

"Because exercise increases blood flow, all the cells of your body, including your skin cells, benefit from the extra oxygen," says Bedri Yusuf, MD, vice president and chief physician executive of Gwinnett Medical Group. "In addition, the increased blood flow clears out more waste products from the skin cells, like washing from the inside. Plus, exercise decreases the levels of stress hormones in your body and can help improve certain skin conditions that may have a stress-related component, like acne or eczema."

And if you want to look younger, Dr. Yusuf says studies show that in adults who exercise, the thickness of the outer two layers of skin more closely resembles younger skin. This means an appearance that is less saggy and flaky.

Brain

"Walking briskly, swimming, playing tennis, dancing, raking leaves and other activities that make you break a sweat are all good for your brain," says Mark Darrow, MD, geriatrician and director of Gwinnett Medical Center's Graduate Medical Education Program. "A 2014 study showed that regular exercise that gets your heart pumping also appears to boost the size of the hippocampus." This is the part of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning.

"In addition," adds Dr. Darrow, "exercise reduces insulin resistance and inflammation, while stimulating the release of beneficial chemicals in the brain, and also improves mental health through improving your sleep and mood, and lowering stress and anxiety."

Heart

The heart is a muscle, and like any muscle, it becomes stronger with exercise. This means more efficiency 24/7. Even when you're at rest, each beat of your heart pumps a higher volume of blood. 

Exercise can also help your heart in other ways:  

  • Improving cholesterol and fat levels in the blood
  • Reducing artery inflammation
  • Aiding in weight loss
  • Helping to keep all blood vessels flexible and open

These benefits contribute to keeping blood pressure normal. If that's not enough to convince you to exercise, doctors and researchers both say what's good for your heart is good for your love life, building higher levels of testosterone and human growth hormone.

Immune System

The system that defends against disease-causing bacteria and viruses is complex. “Researchers are trying to understand the effects of diet, exercise, supplements and stress on its ability to keep you healthy,” says Dana Neacsu, MD, a hospitalist at Gwinnett Medical Center. “It’s clear, though, that exercise boosts your immune system in at least three ways.”

  1. Increased blood flow prompts your body to produce more white blood cells, which destroy germs that can make you sick.
  2. Muscle contraction helps your lymph nodes remove waste more efficiently.
  3. Exercise reduces levels of cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone, allowing you to sleep better and giving your body the downtime it needs to make its nightly repairs.

Dr. Neacsu, who also studied integrative medicine, adds, “While exercise is beneficial, don’t overdo it. consider incorporating walking, yoga, breathing exercises or tai chi into your routine.”