Your body loves to exercise . . . and so does your mind

Dr. FerreriExercise is so much more than just burning calories. The calories burned during exercise, unless you’re a professional athlete, make up quite a small portion of our total calories burned for the day; what we eat has a much greater influence on our body weight. So why should we bother to exercise? Because burning a few calories is just the tip of the iceberg – exercise is an indispensible component of a healthy lifestyle, and has profound beneficial effects, especially on the heart and brain. So if you’ve committed to a Nutritarian diet, why not add some exercise?


Here are just a few of the many benefits of daily exercise:

Protects against chronic diseases.

Regular physical activity reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes by 30-50%. [1] There are clear associations between physical activity and decreased risk of colon, breast, and prostate cancers, and this is thought to be in part due to effects on the insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) system. [2] Exercise also protects against osteoporosis, as muscle strength is the best predictor of bone strength.


Less time spent sitting

There has been an 83% increase in sedentary jobs since 1950 – most of us are inactive for most of the day.[3] But the human body was meant to move – our ancestors probably walked up to 12 miles each day, every day.[4] Getting out to the gym for one hour is one hour you don’t spend sitting in a chair or on your couch – significant because prolonged sitting is associated with increased risk of diabetes and overall mortality.[5]


Makes the brain happy.

Exercise truly is nature’s mood elevator. [4, 6] In fact, exercise has such a powerful positive effect on our mental state that it is prescribed as a treatment for major depression. Meta-analyses of clinical studies have shown that exercise alone works just as well as anti-depressant drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. Aerobic exercise plus strength training works better than aerobic exercise alone, and hatha yoga (physical yoga) is also effective at reducing depression symptoms. [7-9] Exercise affects the levels of several neurotransmitters in the brain, including increasing the production of serotonin, which is associated with feelings of well-being. [10] Anti-depressant drugs are often in the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), drugs that increase the amount of serotonin in the brain – but it turns out we can elevate serotonin naturally with exercise.

Keeps the brain thinking. 

Physical activity has been consistently linked to cognitive abilities and mental alertness.[4] In older adults, regular walking was shown to decrease the risk of cognitive impairment and contribute to maintenance of brain volume [11], and strength training also produces cognitive benefits.[12] Physical activity may exert these effects in part by enhancing blood flow to the brain, which accelerates detoxification of free radicals – important since the brain is especially susceptible to oxidative damage.[4]


Keeps the mind focused and present.

Exercise helps to bring the human mind into the present moment, becoming intensely aware of sensations in the body, rather than daydreaming. A study published last month in Science found that the human mind is daydreaming (not thinking about its current task) about 47% of the time, and also that people rated their mood as happier when they were focused on their present activity rather than engaging in other thoughts. Certain activities were better correlated to focus on the present than others - the top two were sex and exercise. [13, 14] Certain types of exercise generate more presence than others – for example, it’s more likely that you’d daydream while running on a treadmill than in a yoga class. Mindfulness practices are known to be effective for reducing depression symptoms, and breathing exercises can reduce blood pressure, stress, and anxiety. [7, 15, 16] The incorporation of these two factors into physical activity results in a greater improvement in health outcomes than physical activity alone, according to a recent meta-analysis of comparisons between hatha yoga and other forms of exercise. [17]


Makes the heart work smarter, not harder

Exercise necessitates a huge increase in cardiac output (amount of blood pumped by the heart over a given amount of time), because of huge increases in oxygen demands. The muscle of the left ventricle is getting a workout, and that muscle can grow stronger with regular exercise. Endurance athletes may increase their left ventricular muscle mass by up to 30%! Essentially, the heart can do less work to pump the same amount of blood. This means that resting heart rate decreases. [18] This is desirable, since a high resting heart rate is an independent risk factor for cardiac mortality.[19]


Natural vasodilation. Bigger, better vessels

As blood flow increases during exercise, mechanical stresses placed on the vessel walls are altered, and these mechanical stimuli prompt changes in the endothelial cells that line the vessels. Coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure patients who exercise increase their expression of eNOS (endothelial nitric oxide synthase), a key regulator of blood pressure. In healthy individuals, the eNOS effect is not as pronounced and is transient, but it stimulates angiogenesis and vascular remodeling, increasing both the number and diameter of arterial vessels in skeletal and cardiac muscle, which results in improved blood flow to these organs. [20, 21]


A few more favors exercise does for us:

Builds our antioxidant defenses. [20]
Enhances sleep. [22, 23]
Protects against chronic inflammation. [24]


Here’s the best part: if you exercise regularly, you will get better at it and start to like it

Anything you practice on a regular basis will get easier over time, and the same is true for exercise. At first, it may feel cumbersome and very uncomfortable, but over time exercise will become enjoyable. Your body and mind will both thank you. 

1. Bassuk, S.S. and J.E. Manson, Epidemiological evidence for the role of physical activity in reducing risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. J Appl Physiol, 2005. 99(3): p. 1193-204.
2. American Institute for Cancer Research: The Exercise Factor. [cited 2010 September 1, 2010]; Newsletter 85, Fall 2004:[Available from:
3. The Price of Inactivity. American Heart Association.
4. Medina, J., brain rules. 2008, Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
5. van Uffelen, J.G., et al., Occupational sitting and health risks: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med, 2010. 39(4): p. 379-88.
6. Hyman, M., The UltraMind Solution2009, New York, NY: Scribner.
7. Gill, A., R. Womack, and S. Safranek, Clinical Inquiries: Does exercise alleviate symptoms of depression? J Fam Pract, 2010. 59(9): p. 530-1.
8. Uebelacker, L.A., et al., Hatha yoga for depression: critical review of the evidence for efficacy, plausible mechanisms of action, and directions for future research. J Psychiatr Pract, 2010. 16(1): p. 22-33.
9. Saeed, S.A., D.J. Antonacci, and R.M. Bloch, Exercise, yoga, and meditation for depressive and anxiety disorders. Am Fam Physician, 2010. 81(8): p. 981-6.
10. Ma, Q., Beneficial effects of moderate voluntary physical exercise and its biological mechanisms on brain health. Neurosci Bull, 2008. 24(4): p. 265-70.
11. Erickson, K.I., et al., Physical activity predicts gray matter volume in late adulthood: the Cardiovascular Health Study. Neurology, 2010. 75(16): p. 1415-22.
12. Davis, J.C., et al., Sustained Cognitive and Economic Benefits of Resistance Training Among Community- Dwelling Senior Women: A 1-Year Follow-up Study of the Brain Power Study. Arch Intern Med, 2010. 170(22): p. 2036-8.
13. Killingsworth, M.A. and D.T. Gilbert, A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 2010. 330(6006): p. 932.
14. Tierney, J. When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays. The New York Times, 2010.
15. Anderson, D.E., J.D. McNeely, and B.G. Windham, Regular slow-breathing exercise effects on blood pressure and breathing patterns at rest. J Hum Hypertens, 2010. 24(12): p. 807-13.
16. Brown, R.P. and P.L. Gerbarg, Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2009. 1172: p. 54-62.
17. Ross, A. and S. Thomas, The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. J Altern Complement Med, 2010. 16(1): p. 3-12.
18. Duncker, D.J. and R.J. Bache, Regulation of coronary blood flow during exercise. Physiol Rev, 2008. 88(3): p. 1009-86.
19. Verrier, R.L. and A. Tan, Heart rate, autonomic markers, and cardiac mortality. Heart Rhythm, 2009. 6(11 Suppl): p. S68-75.
20. Kojda, G. and R. Hambrecht, Molecular mechanisms of vascular adaptations to exercise. Physical activity as an effective antioxidant therapy? Cardiovasc Res, 2005. 67(2): p. 187-97.
21. Brown, M.D., Exercise and coronary vascular remodelling in the healthy heart. Exp Physiol, 2003. 88(5): p. 645-58.
22. Atkinson, G. and D. Davenne, Relationships between sleep, physical activity and human health. Physiol Behav, 2007. 90(2-3): p. 229-35.
23. Montgomery, P. and J. Dennis, Physical exercise for sleep problems in adults aged 60+. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2002(4): p. CD003404.
24. Mathur, N. and B.K. Pedersen, Exercise as a mean to control low-grade systemic inflammation. Mediators Inflamm, 2008. 2008: p. 109502.




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Comments (12) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Laura - December 22, 2010 10:03 AM

Truer words have never been spoken. I have been exercising for most of my life, and I see it as the most beneficial part of my day. It allows me to feel happy and sleep soundly. I build my schedule around exercising, so I rarely miss it. But when I do, my body knows the difference and isn't happy!

Carrie (Love Healthy Living) - December 22, 2010 4:20 PM

This is a great article about the benefits of exercise, thanks for sharing!!!

Wendy Solganik - December 22, 2010 4:59 PM

Thank you guys for another great article. My favorite form of exercise is Power Vinyasa Yoga in a warm (86 degree) room. Wow! Is it amazing! My second favorite is Pilates done on the Reformer machine. I also really enjoy walking, but really don't like running. It wasn't until finding forms of exercise that I really had fun doing that I became a consistent exerciser. Now I know that I won't go back because I do miss exercising if I go a few days without it! I thought it would never happen to me, but it finally did!

Okra - December 22, 2010 11:07 PM

Thanks for the great post! I've been sticking with the food parameters of the six week challenge and have been feeling great! I love exercise but haven't been getting near enough lately. I will commit to doing something for exercise during the rest of the challenge. My favorite types include yoga, pilates and walking.

fruitycherry - December 23, 2010 2:32 AM

I exercise 5-6 days a week. I love to run, calisthenics, strength training, pilates, and hiking!

I have been at it for about 6-8 months (I've been on the Eat to Live plan for 10.) I have lost 84 pounds and I feel like a new person. I will never go back to my old lifestyle! Exercise has become enjoyable. Never thought that was possible!!!! Eat to Live gave me the energy to do it in the first place!

Diana - December 23, 2010 5:16 AM

My goal this winter has been to do strength training. Am dong it with a trainer twice a week...circuit training is more like it. As the article says, the more you do something, the more you like it. I am really seeing, how I will continue this way of training forever. Love the benefits, but find that I get a definite boost afterward.

Will still do cardio in the warmer months outside. Used to do yoga, and will still do it, but doesn't get me as strong as weights. Love the mental part of yoga, and it does feel great. I think varying your exercise is worthwhile. Tennis in the spring.

Bev - December 23, 2010 7:23 PM

I wrote previously with this question, but I don't think I ever got an answer: I missed the announcement about the 6 week challenge. Will there be another opportunity for something like that? I don't know much about the program - have just been following the blog and read Eat to Live.

I'm open to suggestions - I used to weigh over 180, and for 5'1" that is terrible. Started Pilates and started to eat according to a combination of Fuhrman and Esselstyn. (Check out the recipes in the Esselstyn book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. They really helped me to get on the vegan bandwagon, so to speak.) ;)

I went down to 140, and then gained 10 pounds. I've been hovering around 150 for over a year now and have been having a hard time staying away from grains and sweets, although they are whole grains.

When you live with a guy who is probably too thin (he also weighs 150, but he is 5'10" - mostly bone and muscle!), it is not possible to only keep "my" food in the house. He likes to eat plenty of veggies, but also wants to have some cheese, and likes whole grain bread, jam, and cashews, all temptations for me.

Any ideas?

Suzie - December 24, 2010 12:42 AM

Hey Bev,

I have a similar problem! Maybe he could keep them in a locked cupboard - that only he has the key for? It's the only thing that keeps me out of my kids' (healthy, but not for me) treats!

nora manwiller - December 24, 2010 7:14 AM

Dear Bev,
I totally sympathize with you! I'm 5'1" as well with a similar history and spouse! I am down to 118 now, but have been down to 105. Need to get back!

I find it helpful to have areas of the pantry and fridge that are just "off limits" to me. And I simply don't do grains or cheese, sugar (jam) and other stuff my husband and children like. We are finally at the place where after 5 years most of the family is on board with ETL, and we don't have cheese in the house anymore. But I still buy sprouted bread, nuts, hummus, and just other things I am tempted to eat too much of. I find that even a taste of something that is a grain based dish or toast is too addictive. I want more. So, I just don't eat it.

My hardest time is in the evening when my high energy young men and boys want another meal. I simply don't need it. I have tried to have a cup of tea with them, but then I am up to use the bathroom in the night. Sigh

As far as exercise, I swim or work out at home with weights, bands, calisthenics and music. :)


Bev - December 26, 2010 6:46 AM

Suzie and Nora, thanks so much for your replies. Actually we do have a cupboard that is over the fridge that we keep a lot of his stuff in. Having to drag a chair or a stepladder over kind of reminds me that the stuff is out of reach for a reason! :)

I like that idea of having areas of the fridge that are off limits to me. I will try it. I also need to get more serious about ONLY eating at meals or designated snacks. Grazing is deadly.

I am encouraged by your weight loss, Nora!

Angelique - December 28, 2010 12:31 PM

I began exercising several months before starting the challenge. I remember the day I realized I didn't use my hands to help me stand out of the chair because my legs were strong enough to do it themselves. My fitness and cardio level has improved dramatically in about 5 months and I feel so much better, I know ETL is going to only enhance that!

Charlotte Burkholder - March 25, 2012 3:22 PM

I am 5'l and normally weigh 100 lbs. I have been on Dr. Fuhrman's eating plan for 2 1/2 months. (Main reason was to lowwer my blood pressure.) I have lost 5 lbs. but would like to get back up to 100 or maybe more. I exercise regularly. How can I gain some weight and still continue eating healthily?

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