Everybody these days seems to know that exercise is critical to good health. Most people are aware that it burns excess calories and fights obesity. They also know on some level that exercise gets the blood pumping, so is connected to cardiovascular health. Beyond these principles, many don’t understand of the extent to which exercise is critical to overall good health: Every system in the body benefits from exercise, including the brain, the circulatory system, heart, lungs, liver, metabolism, and even the immune system.[i]
Unfortunately, knowing that we should exercise regularly and actually doing it are two very different things The CDC has recognized that 80 percent of Americans don’t get enough activity to sustain good health.[ii]
At this time, the conversation often migrates toward resources such as gym memberships, fitness apps, or (expensive) personal trainers. However, just as quickly as we decide to entertain such thoughts, we usually dismiss them. Where gyms are concerned, we seem to lack the follow-through it takes to visit more than a couple times before the only memory of the new workout plan is the debited funds drawn unrewarded from our checking account in subsequent months. Statistics show that there is an average spike, peaking as much as 34–50 percent higher than usual, on January 1 of nearly any given year, but by the third Thursday of January of the same year, a decline begins that lasts until about the first of March, whereupon user numbers usually diminish to the previous year’s averages.[iii]
There are many reasons we don’t follow through after joining a gym, including, but not limited to various forms of body shaming, which makes weight loss or visible results, rather than quality of life, the motivation for exercise.[iv] Think about the way most of us tend to play comparison games while working out. We may feel awkward using equipment in front of others whose bodies are more fit; we may be embarrassed about not knowing how equipment operates; we might be uncomfortable undressing in the locker rooms; or we might even dread the part that has us sweating and panting in a room filled with strangers. These are all understandable concerns, and they don’t even reflect those who don’t join a gym in the first place because the expense, scheduling demands, or inconvenient location is prohibitive. As a result, many of us don’t think we have the availability or power to take charge of their health in this way.
However, outspoken advocates for exercise explain that “promoting exercise for physical appearance further idealizes thinness and further exacerbates weight stigma… [but] when we start exercising for pleasure and fun, exercise can become intrinsically motivating, meaning we are motivated from within.”[v]
This means that when we remove our focus from the concept that workouts should take place a set number of times per week at a set location, and for a set amount of time, we can get a liberating new perspective on exercise. Instead of forcing a cumbersome workout regimen into our already-busy lives, we should—as discussed in a previous chapter—begin by creating space. Once our schedules allow some time for leisure, then we can think about what types of physical activity we would also consider fun.
There’s a novel notion, right?
This could mean that we exercise by gardening, swimming, dancing, or even playing “tag” outside with the kids. In addition to finding activities that are both active and enjoyable, there’s a considerable correlation between workouts yielding greater success in groups rather than going solo..[vi] Examples of healthy activities we can engage in with groups include bicycling, running, lifting weights, or taking a dance class.
There are many reasons for this added benefit seen in group activity. For one thing, positive peer pressure gives us a nudge to prioritize our health in ways we may not be able to when we’re acting alone. Likewise, those who struggle through physical metamorphosis together experience a bond forged through “consistency, duration, motivation, conversation and inspiration.”[vii] In other words, the enactment of community becomes the support we need us to carry out actions that would otherwise be difficult. In 1999, the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology reported on a study of the benefits of group exercise. It noted a significant distinction in success between participants who joined workout programs alone or in groups. For those who acted alone, “76% completed treatment and 24% maintained their weight loss”[viii] for nearly a year, while of those who worked out in groups and received peer support, “95% completed their treatment and 66% maintained their weight loss in full.”[ix]
It stands to reason that our efforts will be more successful when tackled in a group than alone, and for this reason we won’t elaborate. As we’ve already touched upon, we are made in the image of God and are wired for community, so it’s no great leap to realize that we can tackle hard jobs more easily with the resolve of many rather than a few or only one. Here’s an interesting thought: If you can’t remember how to play, that may indicate that your lifestyle has fallen out of balance. You can rectify this by taking baby steps. Start by trying to recall what you enjoyed doing when you were young. Chances are, even though your body may have aged, you can still engage in a modified version of the same activity—and it will probably still bring you joy.
Another thought-provoking observation is that when we work out in an indoor facility, more internal motivation is required. Why? Because during outdoor activity, the sun actually provides nourishment to our bodies while being outside in the fresh air lowers stress and blood pressure…all while helping us have a more effective workout with extra “feel good” hormones being produced (more on this later). So, while any workout is beneficial, those involving enjoyable outdoor activities and in a group will likely bring you the highest success rate possible. A bonus: Whereas gym membership dues can cost as much as $50–$60 per month or more, outdoor activities are often easily accessible free or for a minimal charge.
One way that I (Joe) look at working out—in particular, regarding how it affects my levels of energy—is to compare it to putting money into a savings account. If I make a deposit (exercise) each day, on the following day, I have dividends to spend. These dividends come in the form of clearer thinking, increased energy, more flexible joints, muscles that are oxygenated, and a better night’s sleep (which contributes to all the aforementioned benefits). If I skip a day and make no deposit, there’s nothing in the bank the next day. For me, the difference in quality occurs that fast: I am at least 30 percent more sluggish and have more brain fog the day I do not work out and the following day. What I’m getting at is that there are many times when we don’t feel like working out, but we must keep making those deposits. We cannot “create” a surplus of energy by merely resting on the couch.
When Exercise Seems Impossible
We are aware that some of you have likely picked up this book because you’re facing advanced phases of disease/illness that may render the concept of conventional exercise impractical or impossible. For those, I (Joe) would love for you to consider the following.
Can you get to a window? Even if you can sit in a chair near that window, let the sun’s rays warm your skin. I encourage you to turn off all media (except maybe some soft music) and look outdoors, taking in the scene that’s right outside. Find something beautiful to appreciate in the landscape: perhaps it’s a tree, a plant, or the clouds. In a rural area, the foliage and wildlife might provide a breathtaking backdrop. Or, maybe you’re in an urban setting, where the hustle and bustle of humanity, with its innovative transportation, the illumination of technology, the sense of progress, and the prospects of on-the-go discovery await outside. Regardless of the view from your window, you can find something to appreciate.
After taking some moments to enjoy the scenery God has provided, close your eyes and slowly breathe all of the air out of your lungs. Expel as much breath as you can, emptying as much of the diaphragm as you are able. Then, gently and evenly, breathe in through the nostrils, filling the diaphragm and lungs to maximum capacity. Hold this air in place for two full seconds. Then, smoothly exhale all the air. Again, push as much oxygen from the body as possible, and repeat the breathing exercise three times. Then, spend the remainder of the session sitting still, enjoying the landscape, dwelling on positive thoughts, even praying. By allowing your body time to calmly take in the beauty that surrounds you while ruminating on positivity, the hypothalamus gland is able to dispatch healing resources throughout the body, as we discussed in a previous chapter. Despite your inability to work out, this one habit will increase your health by stimulating the vagus nerve, initiating a relaxation response from the brain to the major sensory organs. This will lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and will help decrease anxiety and aid digestion! (The vagus nerve, “also called X cranial nerve or 10th cranial nerve, [is the] longest and most complex of the cranial nerves.”[x])
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Try to spend at least fifteen minutes doing this each day (or longer, if you feel inclined!), breaking up time into durations of your own choosing. Begin each sitting with the breathing exercise, followed by the quiet time of peaceful reflection for the balance of the period. (Don’t do the breathing exercise for the entire block of time, as this could cause hyperventilation.) It doesn’t matter if you do this once for fifteen minutes, if you opt for three five-minute sessions, or chose to do five three-minute sittings daily. We’ve talked previously about the healing power of thoughts along with the benefits of relaxation, prayer, and meditation. Even this simple routine, done while contemplating good thoughts, will alleviate anxiety, nervousness, and fear. An additional advantage to forming this habit comes from the fact that oxygen is a vital nutrient. (The significance of oxygen, in this light, will be discussed in a future chapter.) Even if developing this one habit is the only change you are able to make to improve your well-being, it is valuable.
If you’re unable to exercise, it is our prayer that you won’t let that discourage you from seizing all of the quality of life available. You’re not defenseless; you have the power to make good decisions for the betterment of your health.
When I (Daniel) was beginning my journey toward better health, I began to recall the days spent with my dad in the woods. I had always known that he had given me the gift of his time in those days, but it wasn’t until later that I was able to connect the benefits he bestowed upon me by teaching me his lifestyle. As my search progressed, I innately knew that spending time in spring waters would improve my health. Strangely, at the time, I didn’t understand the science of the process; I just somehow had the instinct that this would be good for my health. It wasn’t until later that I learned about mitochondrial biogenesis (discussed earlier). I wasn’t surprised to find a biological benefit to the immersion of one’s body in clean, cold creek-water, but I was thrilled to finally pinpoint what it was. I was awestruck at the grace of God: He gave me intuitive knowledge that benefited me before I ever even learned the scientific data. This is just another proof that God meets us where we are because He cares about us. As mentioned earlier, mitochondrial biogenesis is regeneration at the cellular level that is triggered by submersion in cold water. The best place to do this is in a creek, stream, or a lake, although the moving current will provide cleaner (and likely colder) water. If you live in the city and cannot get to a natural source of water, a cold shower for one or two minutes per day will accomplish the same thing,[xi] but will also expose your body to chemicals in city water. Thus, we restate that it’s better to finding a natural body of water. There is also the option of filtering your shower water.
Many people have access to an outdoor location where they can wade or swim. Others (I know several people) run a trail at a nearby park, then sit in the creek water nearby to give their muscles a natural “ice bath.” To someone who’s never done this, it may sound torturous, but we assure you that you will acclimate to such activity, and the health benefits are tremendous.
On the other hand, a twenty-five minute session of sauna heat activates something called “heat shock,” which triggers mitochondrial biogenesis.[xii] While it is harder to replicate such conditions in the great outdoors, some places are unusually muggy and hot. In these areas, people often opt for indoor activities with air-conditioning. To a certain degree, this is wise. You don’t want to over-exert yourself in such a setting for fear of heat shock becoming heat stroke. Recall that with mitochondrial biogenesis, the key is exposing the body to something that is healthy in moderation without taking the activity so far that it becomes dangerous. However, considering what takes place in a sauna, no one is suggesting you conduct vigorous workouts within such a climate. Instead, after a nice, cardio-engaging workout, you could find a place to sit and read a book or relax outdoors, even on a hot, muggy day.
You may recall our mentioning telomeres earlier in the book. These are caps that cover the end of DNA in cells, and as cells replicate, telomeres shorten.[xiii] This is the essence of the aging process: the shorter the telomere, the closer to expiration. Healthy telomeres shorten in slower increments, and in some cases, they have been known to lengthen. Because these protective agents respond to the conditions they’re exposed to, their health—and ultimately that of the entire body—hinges greatly upon the choices we make and how we care for our health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a survey of more than six thousand patients across recent years. The results were published by Preventive Medicine in an article that stated individuals who exercised regularly (these subjects ran for at least a half hour a day for five days each week) were found to have telomeres longer by as many as 140 base pairs—“a difference of about nine years of cellular aging.”[xiv]
Beyond this, telomere length is associated with stress level and inflammation, both of which are alleviated by exercise, thus feeding telomere health in other ways when we engage in regular, vigorous exercise.
[i] Mayo Clinic. “Many Benefits of Exercise: Mayo Clinic Radio.” April 25, 2018. Facebook Watch Online. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=10155400852532517.
[ii] Jaslow, Ryan. “CDC: 80 Percent of American Adults Don’t Get Recommended Exercise.” CBS News Online. May 3, 2013. Retrieved March 10, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cdc-80-percent-of-american-adults-dont-get-recommended-exercise/.
[iii] Poon, Linda. “The Rise and Fall of New Year’s Fitness Resolutions, in 5 Charts.” City Lab Online. January 16, 2019. Retrieved March 10, 2020. https://www.citylab.com/life/2019/01/do-people-keep-new-years-resolution-fitness-weight-loss-data/579388/.
[iv] Van Hare, Holly. “The Real Reason You Hate Working Out, According to Science.” The Active Times Online. February 25, 2019. Retrieved March 10, 2020. https://www.theactivetimes.com/fitness/why-hate-working-out-science.
[vi] Steinhilber, Brianna. “The Health Benefits of Working Out with a Crowd.” NBC News Online. September 15, 2017. Retrieved March 10, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/why-you-should-work-out-crowd-ncna798936.
[viii] Wing, R. R., & Jeffery, R. W. (1999). “Benefits of Recruiting Participants with Friends and Increasing Social Support for Weight Loss and Maintenance.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67(1), 132–138. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.67.1.132.
[x] “Vagus Nerve.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020. Retrieved April 27, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/science/vagus-nerve.
[xi] Foxo Health. “How to Stay Young with Mitochondrial Biogenesis.” March 6, 2020. YouTube Video, 9:05. Retrieved March 10, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AefLdrQ8s1k.
[xiii] Macmillan, Amanda. “Exercise Makes You Younger at the Cellular Level.” Time Magazine Online. May 15, 2017. Retrieved March 10, 2020. https://time.com/4776345/exercise-aging-telomeres/.