We’ve probably all lost count of how many weeks the UK has been in lockdown mode due to COVID-19. However, no matter how difficult things get, we can always rely on the most effective (and free) health-booster nature has to offer: physical exercise.
At the time of writing we are all still allowed to leave our homes once per day to partake in physical activity in the immediate local area. A simple 30-minute walk has profound short- and long-term health benefits, with many describing the activity as a ‘superpower’ we should all take advantage of. They are an effective mood-booster in the short term, while in the long-term they contribute to a healthy BMI and lower risk for conditions like diabetes and dementia later in life.
The scientific literature is extremely positive; physical exercise has a wide range of health benefits, especially on the brain:
- An immediate post-workout increase in brain chemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin that contribute to a positive improvement in mood, mental well-being and a reduction in symptoms for depression/anxiety;
- An increase in task-based focus and attention, allowing people to work/study better while avoiding stress and burnout;
- An improvement in reflexes, and reaction times to stimuli;
- Promotion of muscle memory (i.e. improved endurance) and repair through the activation of stem cells;
- A positive change in brain activity; production of growth chemicals leads to the creation of new neurons which reinforce the hippocampus. Coupled with increased blood flow to the brain, these contribute to improved long-term memory and protection against old-age cognitive decline;
- Benefits to immune function, including the increased release of Natural Killer Cells into the bloodstream that detect and neutralise pathogens;
- Boosting of sex drives in women, and erectile function in men. Benefits also seen for general self-esteem.
From animal studies on exercise in mice, it was found that short bursts of exercise, equivalent to a pick-up game of basketball, boosts the function of a gene that increases volume of the hippocampus through increased connectivity, helping to improve memory and learning. In effect, the study showed that an acute burst of exercise is enough to prime the brain for learning.
Gary Westbrook, of the Oregon Health and Science University, stated:
Exercise is cheap, and you don’t necessarily need a fancy gym membership or have to run 10 miles a day [to imprve general brain health]
Exercise has also been theorised to protect against acute respiratory distress syndrome, the primary symptom of COVID-19. A study at the University of Virginia showed that medical research findings “strongly support” the possibility that exercise can prevent or at least reduce the severity of ARDS, which affects between 3% and 17% of all patients with COVID-19. The research focused on a natural antioxidant produced in the body known as extracellular superoxide dismutase (EcSOD). Our muscles naturally make EcSOD, secreting it into the circulation to allow binding to other vital organs, but its production is enhanced by cardiovascular exercise. A decrease in the antioxidant is seen in several diseases, including acute lung disease, ischemic heart disease and kidney failure. Lab research in mice suggests that blocking its production worsens heart problems, while increasing it has a beneficial effect.
Lead author of the study Zhen Yan, of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, commented:
We cannot live in isolation forever. Regular exercise has far more health benefits than we know. The protection against this severe respiratory disease condition is just one of the many examples….We often say that exercise is medicine. EcSOD set a perfect example that we can learn from the biological process of exercise to advance medicine. While we strive to learn more about the mysteries about the superb benefits of regular exercise, we do not have to wait until we know everything.
Its clear that exercise is critically important for a healthy lifestyle and long-term wellbeing, especially in these challenging times that COVID-19 has brought upon us. The Southampton ABP Marathon events due to take place in April can now be done ‘virtually’ in your immediate local area, and its still possible to sign up. UoS Sports and Wellbeing are also offering virtual fitness classes for their members, ranging from pilates to yoga to HIIT. Now if you’ll excuse me, I should probably go for a run!