The Real Benefits of Exercise

Tas Chetty

B.A (Hons) Sport Science; BA (Hons) Biokinetics

We all know physical activity is good for us, but what exactly are the benefits and what do we need to do? The KwaZulu-Natal Regional Chairwoman of the Biokinetics Association of South Africa, Tas Chetty, B.A (Hons) Sport Science; BA (Hons) Biokinetics, gives us the facts.

How does physical activity promote, maintain or improve a person’s health?

  • It is beneficial for the management of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis.
  • Exercise lowers excessively high glucose levels, increases insulin sensitivity, reduces the amount of LDL cholesterol and lowers blood pressure.
  • Regular exercise keeps your heart and lungs healthy, muscles strong and toned, it improves posture, aids in the management of weight through increased energy expenditure, and improves the quality of sleep.
  • Exercise is a type of stress, a good stress. This stress causes the body to adapt and improve to overcome this new load placed on the body.

How much physical activity would a person need to participate in to enjoy health benefits?

  • The American College of Sports Medicine’s minimum basic recommendations are 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise per week; all major muscle groups should undergo resistance training two to three times per week; flexibility exercises should also be completed two to three times per week.
  • Having said that, any exercise is better than none. It is vital to keep moving. Remember, movement = medicine.

Would you say that physical activity is also good for mental health and if so how?

  • Exercise increases serotonin and dopamine production, which are neurotransmitters in the brain. Serotonin decreases depression and hostile behaviour. Dopamine aids in enhancing an individual’s mood and improves long term memory.
  • Exercise increases blood flow, thus delivering fresh oxygen rich blood to the brain which leads to improved cognition.
  • Exercise enhances an individual’s body image which increases self-confidence and general satisfaction.
  • Engaging in exercise may also be a social activity for some which has further benefits of mood and mental health.

Are there specific health benefits linked to specific types of exercises?

  • Resistance training improves muscle strength and endurance and tones or firms the muscles. It also aids in controlling neuromuscular pain, or musculoskeletal pain such as neck or back pain.
  • Cardiovascular exercises primarily improves heart and lung function. The efficiency of the cardiorespiratory system gets improved which aids various conditions such as hypertension, COPD and post-MI’s.
  • Flexibility exercises improve range of motion and aids in muscle recovery when done after a training session. It also helps keep muscles in balance which can lead to improved posture.

Please provide information about heart rate. One often hears that this is a mark of fitness, is this true?

  • Heart rate is the number of times that your heart beats per minute. A normal heart rate for adults at rest is anything between 60-100 bpm.
  • The heart rate does not indicate absolute fitness, however in fit individuals the heart generally beats less per minute because as cardio fitness increases the heart will pump more blood per beat (due to increased blood volume and increased contractility of the heart muscle). This means that the heart doesn’t have to beat as fast or work as hard to meet the demands of a given activity.
  • A lower resting heart rate means an individual will not tire as quickly; he/she will have more in reserve. Heart rate recovery is another parameter closely related to fitness, as it indicates how effectively and quickly the heart can recover and return to a resting state post-activity.
  • Heart rate is also important in controlling exercise intensity. Working at certain percentages of your maximum heart rate provides different adaptations. Training to improve cardio fitness should be between 70 – 80% of your max heart rate, while fat burning takes place slightly below this at 60 – 70%. Maximum heart rate can be worked out by the formula 220 – Age.

When a person is trying to lose weight, what would be the best exercise option? Some say cardio others say weight training?

  • A combination of cardio and resistance training is most beneficial for weight loss as this utilises large muscles groups or a number of different muscles groups at the same time which has a higher energy expenditure.
  • During steady state cardio training at an intensity of 60 – 70% fat burning occurs. Resistance training aids in increasing basal metabolic rate due to increases in muscle mass thus increasing energy expenditure even when a person isn’t exercising. Making sure that you get both of these training methods into your routine is beneficial.
  • There has been a trend to utilise cardio-strength training or High Intensity Interval Training. This requires individuals to fluctuate between short high intensity periods of work, and equal or shorter periods of rest.
  • This type of combo training has been shown to have higher energy consumption rates after an exercise session when compared to steady state cardio exercise, thus enhancing weight loss.

If a person overweight does weight training can that fat can get trapped between the muscles?

  • Fat is stored in various compartments around the body. There is visceral fat which surrounds the organs, subcutaneous fat which is under the skin and intramuscular fat which is found within the muscles.
  • The body will draw from these stores to provide fuel for its activities. One of the first stores that it utilises is the intramuscular fat. This is one of the reasons why muscles will start to feel firmer and more toned upon starting exercise.
  • Subcutaneous fat and then visceral fat follows once intramuscular stores are low.

When a person is trying to lose weight how important is physical exercise for this – besides the health benefits?

  • A combination of exercise and proper nutrition will yield the best results for weight loss. There will be improvements with just one or the other, but the improvements will be much larger when combining the two.
  • Weight loss isn’t going to happen if you train hard but then fill up with the wrong foods.
  • Losing weight comes down to trying to burn as much stored energy as possible. Exercise increases energy expenditure while proper nutrition ensures that you’re not storing more energy than you need.

When partaking in exercise what sort of food groups or types of foods would be beneficial and at what times?

  • It depends on what the individual is training for. Weight loss nutrition would be different to how an athlete would eat, and these would both be different to the nutrition strategy of a body builder.
  • Generally speaking, when exercising, the body will need complex carbs (green vegetables and wholegrains) and protein for adequate energy during the session and to support muscle growth and recovery after the session.
  • It’s best to space meals out every 3 – 4 hours to ensure that glucose levels are steady throughout the day. Spacing meals too far apart causes large insulin spikes which promotes fat storage.
  • Within 30 minutes after exercise, it is also beneficial to take in a meal with 30 – 40 grams of carbs and 10 – 15 grams of protein. This aids muscle growth and repair.

What tips could you give to a person to increase their physical activity and their fitness level regardless of where it is at?

  • Exercise is a long term game. It takes time for the body to adapt so don’t be disheartened if you don’t see a six pack in one week. Start slowly and progress gradually.
  • It has to become habitual and ingrained into your daily routine. A large part of the game is won if you muster the discipline to stick to a steady routine and weave it into the fabric of your day.
  • Remember to change your exercise program every two to three weeks. This aids in taking your fitness to its next stage and keeps the body from plateauing. If you do the same thing over and over again the body will adapt at first to meet the requirements and then just maintain that level unless you hit it with something different.
  • Avoid inactivity by making a conscious effort to be active, for example; avoiding the lift in malls and using the stairs instead, parking slightly further and increasing the distance you need to walk to reach your destination.

For more information contact a Biokineticist in your area.