Updated: Apr 22, 2020
In crazy times, I find it extremely helpful to focus on the things that I can control (like hoarding toilet paper, haha, just kidding). But seriously, as a single mother with two boys who are home with me 24/7, I strive to keep my sanity through movement. It is so helpful for me to get out of my head and into my body. And there is lots of science behind movement as medicine, but I am hoping to share some lesser-known information that I have found interesting.
We have all heard that exercise produces endorphins (the body's home-brewed opiates), but more recent research shows that our brains also produce endocannabinoids after physical activity. Endocannabinoids are the body's home-brewed THC and help to lower anxiety and improve mood.
Now what I find fascinating is that our bodies evolved to make prolonged physical activity feel good. Let's take a quick look at our evolutionary biology. We know we are most closely related to apes. That our distant, distant ancestors slowly over millions of years came down from trees, started to stand upright and started walking on two feet, to find food. What is interesting to think about is the fact that no other species besides birds have evolved to stand upright on two feet! It is doubtful that the aliens who may visit earth someday will be bipedal! But I don't write the movie scripts.
I digress, from standing and walking came running. About 2 million years ago, at the dawn of the ice age with a significant change in the earth's climate, our ancestors started hunting and gathering. At this point is when our bodies began to show adaptations for running. The most lethal weapons available at this time would have been sharpened wood sticks, clubs, and rocks. Slowly over time, our ancestors developed sweat glands all over our bodies to cool ourselves while running. Four-legged animals cool by panting, which they can not do at a gallop. Cooling by sweating made it possible for our ancestors to chase a four-legged mammal to the point of exhaustion and overheating. The arch of our foot, short toes, long Achilles tendon, large gluteus maximus, the nuchal ligaments in our neck, are all examples of adaptations we need for running but not for walking. We know intuitively, we would need to run to survive, but what is interesting is that it appears to be the ones who experienced less pain on the long hunt or gathering process that survived. That is why our brain produces this neurochemical cocktail to reduce pain and make us feel good during exercise. The brain has evolved to interpret physical work (it does not have to be running) to unleash hormones that make us feel good. We are hardwired to take pleasure in physical activities.
Now the absolute beauty of the neurochemical cocktail our body produces during exercise is there is no hangover like with alcohol, and it does not have the deleterious effects that addictive drugs do. With physical activity, the feel-good effects are far less intense than with drugs. And it is because of the fierce high with drugs that your brain tries to find balance and activates its anti reward system, which then works to decrease the intense high, it does this by reducing dopamine levels and decreasing available dopamine receptors in the brain. Which means drugs suppress your brains' reward system, so you are not happy unless you are on the specific drug. But on the flip side, exercise increases receptors for endocannabinoid and dopamine and increases dopamine levels. In effect, this expands our capacity for happiness.
There are lots of purely physical advantages to exercising as well. Increased cardiovascular and respiratory health, strong muscles and bones, the list goes on and on. But looking at our bodies through the lens of evolution also shows us that we don't move our bodies the way they were designed to move. We did not evolve to sit in a chair for the majority of our day.
Let's look at movement on a cellular level. Each time you move, you are not just moving a whole limb or an entire muscle you are working through muscle through bone down to the cells. In her book Move Your DNA, Katy Bowman takes a deep dive into mechanotransduction, the process by which forces or loads are experienced by cells. Mechanotransduction influences the shape of the human body. We know that bone and muscle are dynamic, living tissue capable of growth and adaptation. If you load a bone a lot during development, it will grow thicker and more robust, and if it is not loaded enough will become weak and brittle. Even in adult bodies that are done growing bone can heal itself. When you go for a run, your osteoclast absorbs tiny bits of bone tissue, you don't even feel it, and this triggers the osteoblast to synthesize bone growth to make stronger bone tissue. Same with muscle cells, when you lift a weight, you are creating a mico-tear in the muscle fiber so it will later have to be repaired —thus making the muscle stronger. Bone and muscle tissue are metabolically taxing so our bodies grow and adapt to what is needed and used. When we think about movement not just on a large move your quadriceps level but on a tee tiny cellular level, we can see the importance of moving all of our parts big and little in all directions. Moving your body in all the directions as it was designed also helps keep fascia from sticking. Healthy fascia keeps everything flowing and juicy and moving with ease. But I have so much to say about fascia and forces and loads that may have to be another whole blog post.
So because our bodies are designed to conserve energy as much as they are to move, it can be challenging to get started. If you are not an avid exerciser, I first say start slow, let your body and tissues adapt to new exercise slowly to avoid injury. Going out for a walk is always a great place to start. I find playing a favorite song and getting dressed to workout helpful. But an accountability partner is the best! I am at the point where I need to move like I need to eat. If I sit around in the same position for too long, my body sends cues to move, I am uberly body aware, and I get hungry for movement!
And right now, in this crazy pandemic time, there are a lot of fantastic online resources to keep you moving in different varied and super fun ways! I know exercise is subjective, and what is most important is to find what you love. Here are my current favorites:
Dance cardio at dancebody.com,
I hope you find this helpful; now stop reading and move! xx
Before the Dawn Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
by Nicholas Wade
The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman
Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman
The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal