Exercise

Five people in a yoga studio doing a yoga pose called three-legged dog: both hands are on the mat, head is down, one foot on the floor about a yard behind the hands, the other foot is extended straight up in the air.

If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.

—Hippocrates, Greek physician

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe physical fitness and the major types of exercise
  • Identify the benefits of regular exercise, for both body and brain

Regular Exercise

Three young men playing "bike polo" on a brick-paved campus courtyardThe importance of getting regular exercise is probably nothing new to you. The health benefits are well known and established: Regular physical activity can produce long-term health benefits by reducing your risk of many health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and it can also increase your chances of living longer, help you control your weight, and even help you sleep better.

As a busy college student, you may be thinking, I know this, but I don’t have time! I have classes and work and a full life! What you may not know is that—precisely because you have such a demanding, possibly stressful schedule—now is the perfect time to make exercise a regular part of your life. Getting into an effective exercise routine now will not only make it easier to build healthy habits that you can take with you into your life after college, but it can actually help you be a more successful student, too. As you’ll see in the section on brain health, below, exercise is a powerful tool for improving one’s mental health and memory—both of which are especially important when you’re in school.

The good news is that most people can improve their health and quality of life through a modest increase in daily activity. You don’t have to join a gym, spend a lot of money, or even do the same activity every time—just going for a walk or choosing to take the stairs (instead of the elevator) can make a difference. The following video describes how much activity you need:

Physical Fitness and Types of Exercise

Physical fitness is a state of well-being that gives you sufficient energy to perform daily physical activities without getting overly tired or winded. It also means being in good enough shape to handle unexpected emergencies involving physical demands—that is, if someone said, “Run for your life!” or you had to rush over and prevent a child from falling, you’d be able to do it.

There are many forms of exercise—dancing, rock climbing, walking, jogging, yoga, bike riding, you name it—that can help you become physically fit. The major types are described below.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise increases your heart rate, works your muscles, and raises your breathing rate. For most people, it’s best to aim for a total of about thirty minutes a day, four or five days a week. If you haven’t been very active recently, you can start out with five or ten minutes a day and work up to more time each week. Or, split up your activity for the day: try a brisk ten-minute walk after each meal. If you are trying to lose weight, you may want to exercise more than thirty minutes a day. The following are some examples of aerobic exercise:

  • A brisk walk (outside or inside on a treadmill)
  • Dancing
  • A low-impact aerobics class
  • Swimming or water aerobic exercises
  • Ice-skating or roller-skating
  • Playing tennis
  • Riding a stationary bicycle indoors

Strength Training

Strength training, done several times a week, helps build strong bones and muscles and makes everyday chores like carrying heavy backpacks (or grocery bags) easier. When you have more muscle mass, you burn more calories, even at rest. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Join a class to do strength training with weights, elastic bands, or plastic tubes (if your college has a gym, take advantage of it!)
  • Lift light weights at home

Flexibility Exercises

Flexibility exercises, also called stretching, help keep your joints flexible and reduce your risk of injury during other activities. Gentle stretching for 5 to 10 minutes helps your body warm up and get ready for aerobic activities such as walking or swimming. Check to see if your college offers yoga, stretching, and/or pilates classes, and give one a try.

Being Active Throughout the Day

In addition to formal exercise, there are many opportunities to be active throughout the day. Being active helps burns calories. The more you move around, the more energy you will have. The following strategies can help you increase your activity level:

  • Walk instead of drive whenever possible
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Work in the garden, rake leaves, or do some housecleaning every day
  • Park at the far end of the campus lot and walk to class

Benefits of Exercise

Longevity

Exercise, even after age fifty, can add healthy, active years to one’s life. Studies continue to show that it’s never too late to start exercising and that even small improvements in physical fitness can significantly lower the risk of death. Simply walking regularly can prolong your life.

Moderately fit people—even if they smoke or have high blood pressure—have a lower mortality rate than the least fit. Resistance training is important because it’s the only form of exercise that can slow and even reverse the decline of muscle mass, bone density, and strength. Adding workouts that focus on speed and agility can be especially protective for older people. Flexibility exercises help reduce the stiffness and loss of balance that accompanies aging.

Avoiding Diabetes

Diabetes, particularly type 2, is reaching epidemic proportions throughout the world as more and more cultures adopt Western-style diets (which tend to be high in sugar and fat). Aerobic exercise is proving to have significant and particular benefits for people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes; it increases sensitivity to insulin, lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, and decreases body fat. In fact, studies show that people who engage in regular, moderate aerobic exercise (e.g., brisk walking, biking) lower their risk for diabetes even if they do not lose weight. Anyone on insulin or who has complications from diabetes should get advice from a physician before embarking on a workout program.

Brain: Mood, Memory, Creativity

In addition to keeping your heart healthy, helping with weight loss, and helping you live longer, regular exercise can also improve your mood and help keep depression and anxiety at bay. The following video explains why and challenges you to give it a try:


If you still aren’t persuaded, check out this slightly longer but excellent Tedx Talk, which describes how aerobic exercise can improve your cognitive functioning, memory, and creativity:


Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.