Why exercise is good for you.

This seems like a silly topic to be writing about, but I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and findings on why exercise is so healthy for us and hopefully convince you to start exercising or make you feel better about exercising already!

Physiology

First I want to outline some things that exercise does to our bodies. I will be mainly talking about steady-state training such as endurance running, biking, and swimming; but I will also discuss resistance training at a later point

Burns Calories

Whenever we do anything with our bodies, whether it’s walking a dog, holding a bag of groceries, or pushing our grandma down the stairs, it takes energy to do so.

Our bodies constantly demand intake of energy from food so we can use it to supply energy to our body (even if you’re sick and lying in bed the entire day).

Anyways. Everyone knows that exercise is a way to increase the rate at which you burn calories. We expend way more calories when doing strenuous activity and maintaining a raised heart rate, than when we nudge grandma a little to tip her over.

Now, a lot of people think (correctly so) that they don’t need to exercise and can simply eat fewer calories to still be healthy. It’s a fair argument, but there is an interesting nuance to burning more calories which most people don’t always think about…

Take this simple example for instance:

Caloric IntakeJames (exercises)Jake (doesn’t exercise)
Cupcakes300 calories300 calories
Healthy Food

Caloric Expenditure
Resting
From Exercise
2200 calories


2000 calories
500 calories
1700 calories


2000 calories
0 calories

Ok, so both James and Jake have a balanced caloric intake and expenditure. James ran for 30 minutes so his caloric expenditure is higher than Jake’s by a decent margin, but no big deal since each of them ate the same number of calories as they burned so they will maintain approximately the same weight.

That is TRUE… However, assume that James and Jake went to the same party and decided to eat a cupcake. This is no big deal since Jake still eats fewer calories than James by the end of the day. BUT the problem is that now James will eat that 300 calorie cupcake and he still has room to eat 2200 calories of nutrient-dense, healthy food! Jake on the other hand only has 1700 calories left to eat healthy food before he starts eating too much and might gain weight.

What’s the problem?

Jake will not get as much nutrient-dense food as James (even if Jake doesn’t eat the cupcake). That means less protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, AND probably even more important: not as much diversity of essential nutrients.

Case in point: exercise allows you to eat more food = more diverse food = more healthy food = more healthy you!

Makes your life easier

Pretty vague, but a simple concept. Exercise does 2 important things to our physiology: A) our muscles get stronger and B) our ability to take in oxygen increases.

This makes daily activities easier to perform without fatigue.

It’s also shown to reduce levels of chronic stress by producing an acute stress response: epinephrine, norepinephrine (as well as other neurotransmitters like endorphins).

And also, exercising tends to improve your routine by forcing you to habitually schedule sessions for exercise, as well as (hopefully) scheduling sleep better to recover.

How to exercise?

I’ve sometimes wondered: what is the best way to exercise in terms of maximizing both fitness and longevity?

My guess is that the best way to exercise is a multifaceted training regimen similar to those of Triathletes including swimming, running, biking, and strength training.

However, for most people, this is a lot to ask. If I had to recommend something to someone newly getting into an exercise routine, it would probably be light running and strength training OR cycling + strength training.

Running + strength training is easy to get into if you don’t have access to a gym, a bike, or good bike trails. But overall, cycling is much nicer on the body (and to be honest if I didn’t love orienteering so much I’d probably live near a bike trail and be a cyclist).

I also don’t recommend people to run that much if they are new to running. For most people running 20-30 minutes around 3-4 times per week is enough to maintain pretty decent shape, especially if you include some drills of 30-second sprints at least once a week.

As for cycling, it takes quite a bit more time to see large improvements in strength and cardiovascular health, but I would also recommend about 40 minutes 3-4 times a week.

Either way, I think neglecting steady-state aerobic training is a no-go, but ignoring strength is also not the move which is why I think beginners should also include basic strength training in any exercise routine (whether it’s at the gym or at home).

How much is enough

I used to think that there was no such thing as too much exercise. It’s pretty clear, however, that aggressive competition and overtraining can be damaging.

I mentioned the Triathlete as being the pinnacle of fitness, and I still stand by that statement, particularly if you manage your training well. However, 2-3 training sessions per day is simply not necessary for the average person.

I listened to a podcast episode with Peter Attia who studies longevity and I think his estimates of lower-bound fitness are pretty good.

He recommends 150 minutes of steady-state aerobic exercise (like light running or biking). This is approximately what I recommended in the previous section.

I also think that approximately 25% of your sessions should have extra intensity and work to elevate your heart rate to a higher level (like running intervals or bike sprints).

Peter also recommends strength training sessions 3-4 times per week with a focus on functional movements. This can include anything from pullups, pushups, deadlifts, situps, etc.

That’s all I have for this post, I mainly wanted to get the point across that exercise is better for you than most people give it credit for (particularly the point I made about diet). So hopefully you can feel better about exercising or maybe start doing something about it after reading this post!

Anthony Riley

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